PUBLICLY and privately, Democrats labored over the weekend to save their $33 billion, six-year anticrime bill.
In speeches and public appearances, the President, administration officials, members of Congress, and other high-profile figures - most notably, New York City's Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani - sought to create a groundswell of public support for the bill's array of measures aimed at both punishing and preventing crime.
Behind the scenes, Democratic congressional leaders huddled in strategy sessions to try to figure out how to save a bill that, by some measures, should have passed easily.
Crime a top US concern
Americans have consistently listed crime as their top concern, and have supported the anticrime bill by two-thirds majorities in polls. But the bill was defeated 225-210 in the House last Thursday on a procedural vote.
One bloc of antigun-control Democrats voted against taking the bill to the floor to protest the inclusion of a ban on 19 varieties of assault weapons. Ten out of the House's 38 Black Caucus Democrats voted ``no'' to protest expanded death-penalty provisions and the exclusion of a measure to allow the use of statistics to challenge death sentences.
In addition, only 11 Republicans voted for the procedural resolution, even though 38 had voted to approve the original crime bill that included the assault-weapons ban.
At a Monitor breakfast on Friday, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri was asked if the assault-weapons ban would remain in the legislation. ``I think so,'' he responded, ``but probably not the same one.''
The next day, in his weekly radio address, President Clinton voiced insistence that the weapons ban stay in the bill: ``Let me be clear about this. The crime bill must ban the assault weapons that have no place on our streets.''
The National Rifle Association (NRA), still considered one of the toughest lobbies in town even after legislative losses in recent months, vowed to fight a bill with any form of weapons ban in it.
On Friday, Tanya Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said that, before, she ``was planning to take it easy this weekend. I guess not.''
But to pass the ``rule'' that would send the bill to the House floor, Democratic leaders need only eight votes to tip the balance their way, so they don't need to try to lure away any hard-core gun advocates. If the bill were to be changed, it would have to go back to a House-Senate conference committee for approval. Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, architect of the Senate's anticrime bill and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters he would prefer not to change the bill, but promised he could get the Senate to pass whatever the House is able to pass.
One thing is certain: Supporters of the bill are not giving up. Even before the weekend strategizing, House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington had scheduled the crime bill as the first order of House business Tuesday.
For Clinton, passing a crime bill seems of paramount importance. With the future of health-reform legislation uncertain at best, he needs a major legislative victory to cap off the first half of his term. He and the Democrats are also desperate not to suffer big losses in the November mid-term congressional elections - and they were planning on using the crime bill as a centerpiece of the campaign.
At the breakfast meeting, Congressman Gephardt blamed sheer partisanship for the crime bill's demise. ``My own thought is [that] a lot of Republicans don't want any bill to pass,'' he said.
``I think the bill has it right,'' Gephardt continued. ``People want both toughness and punishment, and prevention. They want both. People understand that you can never solve the crime problem if you put all of our attention and effort and resources on what happens after a crime is committed.''
Some Republicans have complained that the crime bill contains too much money for crime prevention programs, like midnight basketball. Gephardt rejected the notion that they're a ``boondoggle.''
Basketball plan lauded
``I've been to the midnight basketball program, with my mayor, with aldermen in St. Louis in the last four months,'' he said. ``It is a wonderful program. It works. It's privately funded and government funded. When you walk in the building in North St. Louis, a very poor neighborhood, you have not only the players but their families that are there, they feel safe there....''
``It's not just a sports program,'' Gephardt continued. ``They have to get a GED [general equivalelency diploma] to play.... They have a job-search program.
``The companies that are involved in supporting the program try to get them out to their companies and take jobs and interns and so on. I talked to some of the basketball players. You'd be shocked. A lot of them are college graduates who cannot find jobs, to whom this is a ray of hope that they can get out of this situation.''