Clinton crime bill wins through

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WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives approved a sweeping crime bill early today, giving President Bill Clinton a much-needed political victory.

Mr Clinton had made the bill a centrepiece of his legislative programme and had been telephoning members of Congress for support during the debate. In the end the bill got a solid majority of 235 votes to 195.

The dollars 30bn ( pounds 19bn) bill, described as the most ambitious anti-crime legislation in 50 years, bans 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons and had been bitterly opposed by the gun lobby. It now goes to the Senate, where it must overcome strong Republican opposition before it can be sent to the President for signature into law. Appealing to senators to pass the measure, Mr Clinton said: 'This is the strongest, toughest crime bill in the history of the US.'

The victory in the House was seen as a psychological boost for Mr Clinton at a crucial time when his plans for health care reform are on the ropes in the Senate.

The President and Democratic leaders suffered a stunning defeat 10 days ago when the House voted 225-210 to block debate on the bill, setting off a hunt for additional support. That finally came from moderate Republicans who worked with key Democrats to fashion a scaled-down bill in two days of marathon negotiating sessions that ended early yesterday. The reworked bill cut costs by more than dollars 3bn.

But the bill remained anathema to conservative Republicans, who said it did not take strong enough measures against criminals. Many of the bill's supporters said opposition stemmed from the gun lobby and Republicans' desire to inflict a defeat on Mr Clinton.

Opponents backed an alternative measure proposed by the Democratic congressman Bill Brewster of Oklahoma and Republican Duncan Hunter of California that did not contain the assault weapons ban.

The bill provides money to put 100,000 more police on the beat by 2000 and nearly dollars 10bn for prison building.

It includes a provision requiring lifetime imprisonment for three-time violent offenders - the so-called 'three strikes and you're out'. It also makes more than 60 federal crimes subject to the death penalty and tightens restrictions on so-called sexual predators, especially those guilty of crimes against children, allowing law authorities to notify the communities into which they are released.

Some non-violent drug offenders will be allowed out of prison.

The bill, years in the making, is a compromise of measures passed earlier by the House and Senate. Mr Clinton adopted it as his own amid polls showing crime to be a prime concern of voters.