Clinton sticks to his guns and urges Congress to pass crime bill

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton is adamant he will not drop the controversial ban on semi- automatic assault weapons from his beleaguered crime bill, and urged Congress - already facing loss of at least a week of its precious mid-summer recess - to stay in Washington as long as required 'to get this job done'.

Infuriated yet galvanised by Thursday's procedural defeat of the dollars 33bn (pounds 21bn) measure, Mr Clinton spent the weekend carrying his message directly to the public, first in his weekly radio address, and then yesterday in a quickly arranged appearance before a predominantly black congregation at a church in the Washington suburbs.

As partisan feuding and frantic tactical manoeuvres by the House Democratic leadership continued yesterday, the ban on 19 types of street weapons has emerged as the main sticking block to re-introduction and passage of the bill which Democrats insist they will achieve this week.

But Mr Clinton gave no sign of backing off in a conflict which is turning into a test of his steadfastness. Brushing aside calculations of some of his own supporters that without the ban the measure would pass, he declared in his radio address that the bill 'must ban the weapons which have no place on our streets'. He again accused the anti-gun control National Rifle Association and Republicans of playing a 'procedural trick' to block the measure.

Mr Clinton's unwillingness to give ground reflects two considerations. One is the White House fear that any compromise might only cost more votes than it wins. Second, and more important, it is acutely aware that on an issue supported by the general public, a readiness to make deals might only reinforce doubts about his 'character', and the suspicion that in the crunch, Mr Clinton will always sacrifice principle for political expediency.

Hence the importance the tussle has acquired for the entire future of his presidency, eclipsing temporarily even the struggle over health care, which forced the Senate into a rare Saturday session at the weekend. The upshot once more was endless Republican speechifying, but no actual votes on amendments to the bill tabled by the Majority Leader, George Mitchell.

If public utterances are any guide, a deal might yet be struck. In an overture to moderate Republicans, Senator Mitchell said yesterday he is open to compromise on specific provisions of the bill - though not its goal of universal coverage.

And even his sparring partner, Bob Dole, Republican leader in the Senate, sounded less hostile than of late. Speaking on the same TV current affairs show, Mr Dole hinted that the de facto floor filibuster was about to end, and that votes might be taken later this week.

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