Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) conceded yesterday, against a backdrop of liberal and conservative dissatisfaction, that reform of the nation's criminal code may be dead this year because some of the issues involved are too sensitive to handle in an election year.
"Too many members of Congress don't want to face these hot issues this year. That's the bottom line," Thurmond said after the Senate voted to continue to stall on a motion to bring the bill to the floor.
Efforts have gone on for 16 years to reform the criminal code, a hodgepodge of hundreds of volumes of confusing and often antiquated laws that date back several centuries. For instance, there are still on the books laws to prohibit such offenses as seducing a female passenger on a steamship, detaining a government carrier pigeon and piracy on behalf of a foreign prince.
The chances of success this year had been viewed by some as especially good because of an agreement worked out between Thurmond and the committee's ranking Democrats, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), to stick to the reforms long sought by various segments of the U.S. judicial system and to deal separately with controversial issues like the death penalty.
The code revision reported out of the Judiciary Committee last November was strongly endorsed by the Reagan administration.
But the proposed changes were attacked--both by conservatives, led by the Moral Majority and American Life Lobby, and by liberals, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) attempted to bring up the 425-page revision for debate more than a week ago, Senate conservatives indicated they planned to propose dozens of amendments dealing with such issues as a federal death penalty, a loosening of federal gun control laws, abortion and various sex-related offenses including a proposal to prevent prosecution of a man accused of raping his wife.
On the other side, the ACLU said it objected to several provisions, including those making it more difficult for defendants to be released on bail before trials, some mandatory prison sentences, and some proposals it said violated First Amendment rights to free speech.
The possibility was also raised that conservatives like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) might try to attach anti-abortion amendments or other controversial social issues.
Debate over the simple question of whether to bring the criminal code legislation to the Senate floor went on for several days. A motion by Thurmond to end that debate was defeated yesterday, 45 to 46. He needed 60 votes to end debate.
Baker called the vote a "procedural cul-de-sac" and later pulled the bill from the floor.
Although the measure has not yet been officially declared dead, Thurmond said after the vote that it was simply too difficult to get members of the Senate and the House on record on some of the controversial amendments in an election year, even though he believed they should have gone ahead.
"I think members have got to learn to take the heat," Thurmond said. "People have a right to know where they stand on these issues. It's coming. If not now, then later. But in an election year, I can understand it."
The chairman conceded that the bill is dead for this year unless a way can be found to deal with the controversial amendments.
Kennedy, who has worked for years on criminal-code reform, warned that it would be a mistake to jeopardize the progress of the past 16 years "by a premature decision to move it to the floor and let nature take its course. That way lies the death of criminal code reform."
But Thurmond said, "It's not doomed, it's just delayed....Sooner or later we've got to get working on this code....The biggest problem in our nation today is crime...and this code has lots of good things in it."