Just as Democrats were saying they had finally wrested the crime issue away from Republicans, Democratic-created hurdles have tripped up House action on a $33.2 billion crime bill.
As a result, GOP gun-control supporters could now hold the key to the bill's passage."Without some Republicans, we can't pass the bill," said Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's crime panel.
The six-year measure would authorize billions to help put 100,000 new police officers on the beat, billions for state and local prison construction and billions for crime-prevention efforts. It also contains provisions to create more than 50 new federal death penalties, send some third-time felons to prison for life and ban assault-style firearms.
President Clinton calls it the "toughest, smartest crime bill in the history of the United States," balancing tough measures on crime with prevention efforts.
But members of his own party - conservatives who oppose ban on assault-style firearms and blacks who oppose the death penalties and the dropping of a provision to challenge discrimination in capital cases - have stalled the bill.
On July 28, when House and Senate conferees devised the compromise bill, it was considered unstoppable, expected to pass the House last Tuesday and the Senate shortly after that.
It has gained the support of virtually all major law-enforcement groups and the nation's mayors - including blacks and Republicans who have lobbied their brethren in Congress.
Still, supporters have been obliged to twist arms and cajole lawmakers just to ensure the bill survives a preliminary vote, known as the "rule," establishing procedures for voting on the package on the House floor. Defeating the rule would kill the compromise package.
Getting the bill to the House floor is a matter of numbers. Rule votes in the 435-member House usually follow party lines - the GOP, en masse, votes against virtually all of them. It's therefore up to the 256 Democrats to pass it, and they cannot lose more than 38 Democratic votes. Thus far, they're losing well more than that.
However, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said the bill will get to the floor and pass the House without changes.
"We are going to get 218 votes to pass the rule and the bill," he said Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week with David Brinkley."
An unlikely coalition has sprung up to oppose the rule.
Most numerous are National Rifle Association-backed Democratic gun control opponents who want the assault-style weapons ban stripped out. The Senate passed the ban as part of its crime bill, and the House narrowly passed it, 216-214, as a separate measure.
The ban would affect 19 named types of firearms and scores of others that the government says meet the characteristics of assault-style weapons, and it would limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds. At the same time, it would exempt 650 named firearms and all guns legally owned when the law took effect.
These Democrats were supposed to be mollified by a provision exempting pawnbrokers from the Brady law's requirement for five-day waits and background checks on people reclaiming their own guns. During the deal-cutting of the crime bill conference, they got the provision. But they still oppose the rule.
Also threatening to oppose the rule are black lawmakers upset by the death penalties and irate over the bill's exclusion of a provision allowing use of statistics to help prove racial bias in capital cases.
Several of their votes loosened up thanks to lobbying by black mayors and White House promises to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination in federal cases and to appoint a commission to study the problem.
More influential, however, was their disturbance at finding themselves in league with the NRA.
"I'm not going to vote for anything that in any way helps the NRA," said Rep. Mel Reynolds, D-Ill.