House-Senate conferees last night approved a $3 billion crime bill, including a waiting period for handgun purchases and reinstatement of the death penalty for federal crimes, after a stormy session in which Republicans denounced the bill as "pro-criminal" and predicted a presidential veto.
The final version of the measure was drafted by Democrats and approved in a series of party-line votes at a rare Sunday session demanded by Democrats, who wanted to send the bill to President Bush before Congress adjourns this week and thereby avoid accusations that they were delaying on crime.
Republicans repeatedly complained of "steamroller" tactics and balked at voting without seeing the final drafts of the contested provisions, prompting Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to charge them with stalling to keep the bill from reaching the White House.
"It's clear to me that the president would be happy if we didn't get anything back unless it was exactly what he wanted so that he would have a political victory," Biden said. Similarly, Biden said, he did not want the bill to stall in the conference "because it would be a political loss . . . for the Democrats."
But Republicans complained that the Democrats almost unfailingly chose the weaker provisions of the House or Senate bills and were trying to force a vote before members knew exactly what the legislation provided. "I'd like to know what I'm being rolled on," complained Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).
"The administration will not accept a bill that guts the tough provisions passed by the House and the Senate," Justice Department spokesman Paul J. McNulty told the Associated Press last night.
The conference got off to a deceptively smooth start with approval of the Senate version of the so-called Brady bill, which calls for a waiting period of five working days for the purchase of handguns during which police must check whether the prospective buyer has a criminal record. The House version of the bill, named for former presidential press secretary James S. Brady, who was gravely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan, would have required a seven-day wait, with no requirement for a police check.
But the conferees rejected another major gun-control proposal, a Senate-passed ban on manufacture, sale and transportation of nine types of semiautomatic assault weapons that had been rejected in broader form by the House. The assault-weapon proposal was "just not going to fly" on the House floor, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.).
The bill also would apply the federal death penalty to about 50 federal crimes, including some new ones as well as others covered by earlier statutes that had to be modified to meet Supreme Court guidelines. The crimes included murders in connection with terrorism, assassination of federal officials, genocide, kidnapping resulting in death and major drug-trafficking offenses even when murder is not involved.
The conferees dropped a proposal to allow the death penalty for drug-related killings in the District of Columbia, which does not now impose capital punishment. Also dropped was a proposal to seek the federal death penalty for murders committed with guns transported across state lines, even in states without capital punishment.
While there was relatively little dissension over death penalty provisions, Republicans were particularly angry over the conferees' rejection of sharp restrictions on habeas corpus appeals by death row prisoners for review of their sentences in federal court. The conferees agreed instead on a less restrictive House provision to set a one-year deadline for review filings and bar successive petitions in many cases.
The death penalty amounts to a "nullity" because the habeas corpus provision "undoes it all," complained Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who led the GOP attacks on the bill.
In another major controversy, the conferees chose the milder of two provisions dealing with situations where illegally seized evidence can be admitted in trials. They approved a Senate provision allowing use of evidence seized with an invalid search warrant so long as the police acted in "good faith." A House proposal would have allowed use of evidence seized with no warrant.
The bill also includes funds for hiring more law enforcement officials on the federal, state and local levels and a variety of other crime-fighting initiatives.
Biden and other Democrats contended the bill was the strongest crime measure to pass Congress in memory and a source of frustration to Republicans because it could deprive them of a Democrats-are-soft-on-crime issue in 1992 elections. "They can't stand it that the Democrats have come out for a really strong, tough crime bill," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called it a "pathetic exercise" that would cost "billions of dollars" while tying up courts in "frivolous appeals" and releasing prisoners to commit new murders. "This is not a crime bill . . . . It's pro-criminal," said Thurmond.
Thurmond and other Republicans said they believed Bush would veto the bill and raised the possibility of a Republican filibuster to block approval of the conference agreement by the Senate. "I intend to pursue any means that I think can stop this bill," said Thurmond, without committing himself to a filibuster.
"I just can't believe Republicans would kill a death penalty bill," said Biden. And if the president tries to explain why he vetoed a death penalty bill because of a court ruling on habeas corpus, "I want to see him do it in a 30-second sound bite."