PRESIDENT Clinton, struggling in the polls and watching his biggest legislative projects teeter on the edge of oblivion, finally won a big end-of-session congressional victory.
In gaining House passage Sunday evening of compromise anticrime legislation, Mr. Clinton also showed an ability to work both sides of the political street. Several dozen moderate Republicans central to the drafting of the compromise ended up voting with the majority to pass the $30 billion bill by a vote of 235 to 195.
``We have to recognize that there will be more Republicans in the next Congress and that it will be increasingly important for the president to work with both sides,'' says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a key moderate Republican who worked to keep the bill alive.
Next comes a vote in the Senate, which will not be easy for crime-bill supporters. On Saturday, Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he might not be able to muster the 60 votes necessary to stop an expected filibuster of the bill.
But even coming back from his defeat in the House was a welcome victory for Clinton. The House had threatened the crime bill with extinction Aug. 11 when it voted 225 to 210 against the ``rule'' allowing the bill to the floor for a vote.
In the end, was all the wrangling really over making marginal improvements to the crime bill, or was it a calculated effort to inflict political damage on a president who has been floundering in opinion polls?
Both, say experts on Washington politics. But ``victory now,'' says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute here, ``is worth more than if he'd won on the rule the first time around. He's shown that he can take on tough interests.''
One such interest, the National Rifle Association, failed to get a ban on 19 types of semiautomatic weapons removed from the bill.
Alan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University in Washington, says that in the short run, everybody was hurt by the initial derailing of the crime bill. Clinton looked weak, and the opponents of the bill looked obstructionist on a bill that was popular with the public, he says.
``But in the long run, if Clinton gets something through with favorable reviews, he gets out ahead,'' Professor Lichtman says.
``I think Republicans will have a hard time using law and order'' as a campaign theme this fall, he adds. Even though Clinton was never viewed as being soft on crime, ``now he may have turned it into an asset,'' Lichtman says.
One Republican Democrats won't be able to go after on crime this fall is Congressman Shays. Even though he had voted to keep the bill alive on Aug. 11, he says he felt the bill could still be improved.
``I really believed in the bill and wanted to save it,'' Shays says. Unlike most of his fellow Republicans, he says devoting 25 percent of the spending to crime prevention is ``essential.'' In his district, which includes Bridgeport, Conn., midnight basketball is popular and worthwhile, he says.
``Most of my [Republican] colleagues represent suburban and rural areas, and they don't see the need for prevention,'' he says.
The original crime package would have cost $33.5 billion over six years. About $2 billion of the $3.3 billion trim came in cuts from crime-prevention programs. But, with a few exceptions, such as Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, who felt he could not support the pared-back version, the new bill kept its old supporters and won a large bloc of moderate Republicans.
Spending in the House-passed bill breaks down as follows: 45 percent for law enforcement, 33 percent for prisons, and 23 percent for crime prevention. One provision that faced little opposition, and remained intact, was a plan to add 100,000 new police to the streets.
Changes in the bill include:
* Consolidation of individual crime-prevention grant programs into a $380-million block grant program to allow greater local freedom in spending decisions.
* Stricter monitoring of sex offenders upon their release from prison.
* Elimination of a $10-million criminal-justice center that was to be built at the alma mater of Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
* In rape trials, allowance of evidence of prior sex offenses. This rule is subject to review by an organization of federal judges.
* Limits on the opportunity for nonviolent first-time drug offenders already in prison to take advantage of new rules exempting such offenders from mandatory sentences.