Clinton poised to repel assault on his crime bill

President Bill Clinton is poised to use the first veto of his term to kill Republican efforts to reshape the $30bn (£19.2bn) crime bill he pushed through Congress with much difficulty last summer. The Republicans want to lift the existing ban on assault weapons and overturn provisions to put 100,000 more policemen on the streets.

Matters have come to a head over a House vote, expected last night, that would replace $10bn of federal funding to hire the new officers with a system of direct block grants to individual states.

The Republicans say many states neither want nor need the extra police. The Democrats contend that grants are a formula for graft and waste. With the battle lines drawn, Mr Clinton said he would veto the measure and, despite losing control of Congress, Democratic leaders are confident they have the votes to sustain the veto, which can only be overridden by a two- thirds majority in both chambers. But one successful veto will not halt the Republicans' law-and-order offensive.

Crime legislation has seen some of the most complex manoeuvring thus far in the 104th Congress. Originally, efforts to rewrite the 1994 bill were rolled into a single item of the Contract with America, the "Taking Back Our Street" Act. But this has now been split into eight separate bills, to ensure that some, if not all, Republican goals are attained.

The most controversial part, a repeal of the ban on 19 semi-automatic weapons, has been left until later. But other measures, including a curb on appeal rights for Death Row and other prisoners, have sailed through as dozens of conservative, mostly southern Democrats have joined with the Republicans.

The blitz has had its bizarre moments. Strangest of all of them, perhaps, was when, in its eagerness to ram through a measure relaxing laws of evidence admissibility, the Republican majority voted down the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution - that part of the hallowed bill of Rights which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures "in their persons, houses, papers and effects" - after it was presented as a Democratic amendment to today's bill.

Mr Clinton's response will be the first indication of the "veto strategy" he must now employ in dealing with a hostile Congress. He faces a ticklish choice. If anything, the public's thirst for "get tough on crime" laws is greater than ever. But should he acquiesce each time, an image of terminal presidential weakness will only be reinforced.

He has made it clear he plans to draw the line on the measure supposed to put 100,000 more policemen on the streets, on which he has broad support from police organisations. But thereafter looms the assault-weapons challenge. The Republican plan seems to be to attach the ban's repeal to a generally popular bill, which could command the votes to override the expected veto.

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