His voice trembling, Mr Clinton last night accused members of Congress of 'pulling a procedural trick' to defeat the bill. 'I worked my heart on it and I did everything I could,' he told reporters in the White House. 'But what matters is all these kids who are going to be out on the streets tonight who might get shot.' He urged members to delay any summer recess until the bill was renegotiated and approved.
The bill, which called for extra spending of dollars 33.2bn ( pounds 21.7bn) on crime prevention and would also have banned many types of assault weapons, was one of the centrepieces of the President's agenda. Passage of it would have given him a big boost at a time of fragile political fortunes.
After a day that saw the President himself lobbying congressmen by telephone, members of the House in effect killed the bill by 210 votes to 225 on a preliminary procedural vote. Hours earlier, the White House had been expressing tentative confidence that passage of the bill was secured. Aides and the President himself were reported to be stunned at the defeat. The administration will want to know today why the Democratic leadership of the House went ahead with the voting when it was not sure of victory.
The outcome is a vivid example of how fragile is Mr Clinton's sway over Congress, in spite of a notional Democratic majority in both houses.
The bill will now return to a Senate-House conference, where work would normally start on altering it to forge consensus. But several lawmakers appeared pessimistic about its chances of being salvaged quickly.
As well as reinforcing city police forces, the bill would have funded a huge prison construction campaign, considerably widened the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty and introduced the 'three- strikes-you-are-out' provision, whereby a third-time serious criminal would be imprisoned for life.
Fear of crime consistently comes out as the voters' main concern in opinion polls, ahead of both the economy and foreign policy matters.
Opposition to the bill was whipped up in particular by the still- influential National Rifle Association (NRA), which strongly dislikes provisions to ban the sale of assault weapons - a ban particularly important to the President. The NRA won the minds not only of most Republicans but also of many conservative Democrats. And some members of the Democratic black caucus opposed the bill because it did not include measures to allow prisoners on death row to appeal against sentence on grounds of racial bias.
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