Clinton in sight of crime bill victory

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The Independent Online
IN A resounding triumph for the embattled White House, and a no less humiliating defeat for the Republicans, the Senate last night passed a crucial procedural vote, in effect ensuring final passage of the dollars 30bn ( pounds 19bn) crime bill whose fate had become a touchstone of the Clinton presidency.

By 61 to 39 the Democrats beat off a Republican bid to reopen the entire bill for amendment. That would have sent it back to the House of Representatives and probably killed it. Until hours before the vote Bob Dole of Kansas, the Republican Senate leader, had boasted he had the 40 votes he needed. But six moderate Republicans voted with 55 Democrats to thwart the motion. One Democrat sided with the Republicans.

Thus is ending a legislative epic that began almost six years ago when President George Bush first sought a significant crime bill. President Bill Clinton took up the challenge and the measure was approved by the House last Sunday. The Senate's seal was expected by tomorrow at the latest, leaving Mr Clinton's signature for the measure to become law.

Described by Mr Clinton as the 'toughest and smartest' anti- crime legislation in US history, the measure, in fact, is several bills rolled into one. It provides funds to build new prisons and put 100,000 more police on the streets. It vastly extends the federal death penalty, and stipulates life imprisonment for anyone convicted of a third violent crime.

Most controversially, it bans 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons. Despite an all-out offensive by the National Rifle Association, gun control supporters held firm for their second big victory over the NRA inside 12 months. Last year the 'Brady bill', requiring a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, became law.

The crime bill, by common consent, is an ungainly conpromise. Republicans have bitterly criticised many of its spending provisions, while liberal Democrats protested in vain at the death penalty clause.

For four days progress in the Senate stalled as both parties sought to round up support for last nights's showdown vote. In the end, however, bowing to overwhelming public pressure for Congress to act, the six moderate Republicans accepted Mr Clinton's pleas for bipartisanship.

Mr Dole and his colleagues denied any suggestion that they were being obstructive. Their opposition, they maintained, was simply to permit amendments to improve the bill, notwithstanding the fact that almost all of them had voted for an earlier version that sailed through the Senate by 95 votes to four.

The Democrats said the Republicans were catspaws for the NRA. No less obviously, in the supercharged political climate before November's mid-term elections, the Republicans were desperate to deny a weakened Mr Clinton any legislative success.

As it is, he must settle for far less than he had once hoped. Resolution of the crime bill impasse clears the way for the Senate's long-delayed summer recess. Health reform, the capstone of the President's political ambitions, may have to wait until next year.