Last night, after a largely unproductive fortnight spent wrestling with, and quarrelling over, health- care reform, the Senate took up the crime bill. And although the prospects are it will ultimately pass, the arithmetic this time around is just as tricky, and complicated by the ever-present threat of a Republican filibuster.
In the end, the White House only pushed the dollars 30bn ( pounds 19bn) crime measure through the House thanks to the support of 46 moderate Republicans, enough to offset the anti-gun control conservatives and anti-death penalty liberals within Democratic ranks who defected. That success in turn was only earned by intense lobbying. Even more of the same will be needed in the Senate, where Democratic party discipline is weaker, and potential Republican converts are relatively fewer.
On paper the Democrats have a 56-to-44 Senate majority. But Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden of Deleware, in charge of the bill on the floor, acknowledges up to 10 of his troops will vote against the bill. 'My problem,' he said yesterday, 'is to get five to eight Republicans'.
Making matters even more unpredictable is the Senate rule requiring 60 votes for cloture, the equivalent of a House of Commons guillotine. In practice Republicans, if they hold together, can mount a filibuster on any measure of which they disapprove. But despite much sabre-rattling, the Republican leadership was reckoned unlikely to resort to so blatant a form of obstructionism.
For one thing, poll after poll shows that the country at large, where crime is the main worry, wants a bill that extends the federal death penalty, builds prisons and puts up to 100,000 more police on the streets. Having passed their version of the crime bill 95 to 4 earlier this year, both Republicans and Democrats will be hard pressed to explain why they suddenly dislike it this time around.
The true reason, of course, is the sourly partisan mood on Capitol Hill, fuelled by the approaching mid-term elections, the Republican belief that one more shove could send the the Clinton presidency tumbling over the cliff and, last but not least, sheer irritation at a recess that never seems to come.
Most attention in the Senate is expected to focus on the crime bill's ban on 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons. Mr Clinton has made much of the fact that despite fierce pressure from the National Rifle Association, he has refused to drop that provision. The NRA, however, is promising to redouble its efforts to sink the bill, whose success in the House was labelled yesterday by an assocation spokesman as a defeat for the American people.
Republicans, too, will keep up their attacks on what they say is 'pork' (Democrats prefer the term 'miscellaneous crime-prevention spending') in the measures. But if these attacks are beaten off, and the NRA kept at bay, Congress will, after nearly six years of trying, have passed the anti-crime legislation it has sought since the start of the Bush presidency.
Even if it does, however, the impact on Mr Clinton's most cherished goal of health-care reform is likely to be small. Whatever happens, the House will not start debating its version of the bill until after Labor Day. The Senate, too, is still hopelessly divided, with remaining hopes of a breakthrough linked to a bipartisan group of around 20 Senators who have come up with proposals even further removed from the original Clinton blueprint for guaranteed universal coverage than the watered-down substitute under discussion on the floor.
Conceivably the Senate could pass something within the next fortnight, if only out of exhaustion. George Mitchell, the Majority leader, continues to crack the whip, warning there will be no recess without a bill. Increasingly however, the public mood is shifting towards the Republican argument that delay is preferable to a botched bill to permit Senators a few days of summer holiday.
Time, in short, is running out. Even if something emerges from the Senate, there will be barely a month in which to push a bill through both Houses before Congress breaks up for November's mid-term elections.
Nor are Capitol Hill head- counts and cliffhanger votes the only reasons these days for nail- biting at the White House. As soon as Congress breaks up, Leon Panetta, the chief-of-staff, is expected to finalise a big staff shake- up. Mr Clinton's press operation will be in the firing line.
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