Saying that the American people "really are fed up" with violent crime, President Bush yesterday vowed to veto a House Judiciary Committee-passed crime bill that he charged is "tougher on law enforcement than it is on criminals."
"I simply will not accept anything that rolls back the clock on America's ability to fight crime and punish wrongdoers," Bush said in a Rose Garden talk to a group of a district attorneys and state attorneys general. "The bottom line is really this: I will not sign a crime bill that handcuffs the police."
House Democrats quickly criticized Bush's comments as another attempt to play politics with the volatile crime issue. They said the bill, which is scheduled to be taken up by the House this week, toughens federal anti-crime laws in many respects, adds to the list of federal crimes that warrant the death penalty and contains a number of measures designed to streamline the handling of death penalty cases at the state level.
But the House measure also includes provisions aimed at protecting the rights of defendants, including one that would provide "competent counsel" to death row inmates and a controversial "racial justice" amendment that would block executions if it can be statistically shown they are having a disproportionate effect on minorities in any state.
Another provision would reverse a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Teague v. Lane, that sharply restricted the ability of state prisoners to challenge their sentences in federal courts. The measure also omits an amendment requested by Bush in his own anti-crime package that would broaden the ability of prosecutors to use evidence that was illegally seized by police acting in good faith.
"They just want more executions, and due process be damned," Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the Judiciary civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, said of the veto threat. "This is mostly politics."
Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), chairman of the Judiciary crime subcommittee, also called Bush's veto threat "political posturing" but said he plans to introduce amendments that would address some of Bush's key complaints on the death penalty issue. One amendment, which Hughes said he expects will pass, would add the death penalty for mail bombings. Another would reduce the number of "aggravating factors" that are needed for the courts to impose a death sentence.
The debate over the crime bill occurs at the end of a summer in which murder rates have soared to record levels and some particularly gruesome crimes have received prominent attention and raised new fears that the nation is in the midst of a new wave of violent crime.
Bush, who made fighting crime a centerpiece of his 1988 campaign, played off those concerns yesterday. "For the past two weeks, America has been gripped by chilling headlines that tell of kids going back to school in bulletproof coats and a visiting Utah man . . . killed while defending his mother from a New York subway gang . . . ," he said. "The American people really are fed up."
To reinforce the point, Bush invited a group of district attorneys and state attorneys general opposed to the bill. One of them, Richard Ieyoub, the Lake Charles, La., district attorney and president of the National District Attorneys Association, said the House bill "looks like it was drafted by the 'Death Row PAC' at Leavenworth or Attica."