In good times and bad, Americans rank crime among their top five concerns. Senators and House members long ago began reading the polls, and since 1980 anticrime legislation has been passed by every Congress.

Until this one.

The current crime bill has been stuck in the Senate under threat of presidential veto since last November. President Bush and most congressional Republicans say it is not "tough enough." Democrats say the Republicans are stalling passage because they want to use crime as a political bludgeon during the upcoming general elections.

But under the blanket of partisan bombast lurks the suspicion on the part of some lawmakers that many -- perhaps most -- of their colleagues deep down inside don't want a crime bill. Conservatives, they say, think the bill has too much gun control. Liberals, they say, think it has too much death penalty. Some members, they add, believe the bill is useful only because it sounds good on the campaign trail -- it doesn't need to pass.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1991 is loaded with headline-grabbing provisions that Democrats and Republicans agree are substantively meaningless. In drafting the bill, for example, both parties played "can you top this" by attaching the death penalty to ever more esoteric federal offenses (samples: "air piracy resulting in death"; "genocide").

It is also an unwieldy "omnibus" bill huge enough (211 pages of new law and changes) for ideological opponents to vote for it, yet difficult to tinker with after a deal has been struck. Fiddling with one provision risks collapse of the whole house of cards.

Still, although the bill has languished in the Senate for the last nine months, lawmakers from both parties are meeting with the Justice Department in hopes of working out a compromise. Crime bills -- one every two years since 1980 -- are always popular, and in an election year Bush and Congress can ill-afford to be labeled "do-nothings." Washington Post-ABC News polls repeatedly have listed crime among the top five issues troubling Americans.

"It may be true that people are so turned off by Washington they don't think anything will ever change," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), one of the bill's principal drafters. "But what isn't true is that people don't care about crime."

The proximate cause of the crime bill's current immobility is a partisan difference over inmates' death row appeals -- the "habeas corpus provisions." Bush and most congressional Republicans are demanding greater restrictions on the number and nature of such appeals than those provided in the Democratic-drafted crime bill.

But politics, both sides believe, is the real reason for inaction. Bush and Republicans in general have found it politically useful to paint Democrats as soft on crime. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), one of the Democrats' biggest tormenters, accuses them of not believing in "the fundamental philosophy" of getting tough. "They {the Democrats} still blame society," he said.

Campaign Nightmares

Democrats acknowledge that crime, "historically," as Biden said, is a bad issue for them, and the party has lived in fear that Bush will use it against Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton the way Republicans used Willie Horton to help bury Michael S. Dukakis four years ago.

But the Democrats decided early last year that the best way to neutralize their disadvantage was to write a crime bill just as tough-sounding as anything the Republicans could produce -- and hope they could drag enough liberals along to pass it. If Bush signed it, crime would disappear as a campaign issue; if he vetoed it or threatened a veto, the Democrats could hold him to account for obstructing the people's will.

Nothing ever cuts that cleanly, however. Bush may have threatened a veto because of the habeas corpus dispute, but he has also damned the bill generally as not tough enough. The Democrats know the bill is weak, the Republicans say, and are simply out to embarrass the president. In Republican-speak it is now known as "the pro-crime bill."

Democrats dismiss these objections as cynical nit-picking and claim that Bush has decided that having no crime bill is better for his reelection campaign. "If they have a bill, then they can't demagogue crime," Biden said. "They've made a judgment that it's better not to have a bill, and run against Congress."

Little of this ever had anything to do with either crime or the substantive merits of the crime bill, but it turned out to be more than sufficient to bring the legislation to a wheezing halt. Better to have gridlock than have the enemy take credit for the bill's passage.

"There are a lot of people on both sides who do not want a bill," acknowledged Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee on criminal justice.

Skirmishing continues. During a May 14 floor speech, Gramm contended the crime bill "strengthens criminals' rights." Not so, replied Biden. The bill has enough death penalty offenses so that "we do everything but hang people for jaywalking."

Gramm presented a letter from 31 state attorneys general opposing the bill (fewer habeas corpus petitions means less work for them). Biden trumped him with letters from organizations representing "more than 600,000 police officers" (the bill authorizes $3 billion for local law enforcement). Even the endorsements are afflicted with gridlock.

Bush, fresh from his Operation Desert Storm triumph, began the game on March 6, 1991, by calling on the Democrat-controlled Congress to pass his crime legislation "in 100 days." The challenge set the stage for the partisan struggles to come.

Democrats saw an opportunity. Congress had written a "narrow" bill in 1990, ignoring such ideologically tough issues as the death penalty, habeas corpus and gun control. This time, the Democrats would throw everything into the pot and bring in a bill that Bush would be hard-pressed to ignore.

"It was always my intention to write a comprehensive bill," said Schumer, whose subcommittee drafted the House version. "I felt it was imperative for the Democrats to put their own stamp on crime."

Congress largely ignored the 100-day deadline, but on May 8 the House approved a measure mandating a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases -- the "Brady bill" named after former presidential press secretary James S. Brady, who was disabled in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The Senate approved a similar measure June 28 as part of its omnibus crime package.

Both Sides Seek Cover

The House eventually agreed to insert the Brady bill into a larger piece of legislation. The omnibus approach, in which touchy items are included in a much bigger package, gives skittish members enough political "cover" to cast a "yes" vote. Nobody believed that any of the controversial issues could stand alone and survive.

"Different people want different things," Schumer said. "And different people don't want other things."

In an omnibus crime bill, it was hoped, anti-capital-punishment liberals would accept death penalties if they could get the Brady bill in return; gun control opponents would take Brady if they could get more death penalties and tough habeas corpus provisions.

Bush accepted the approach, saying he would approve a waiting period for gun purchases provided it formed part of a larger, tough crime bill. At that point, government seemed to be working. Both parties wanted a bill and Bush was willing to embrace Brady to get one, even if it risked alienating some conservatives.

But in the four months it took the House to pass its crime bill, bipartisanship began to evaporate. Many House liberals were losing their enthusiasm for the bill because of misgivings about the death penalty and restricting death row appeals. A large number of Republicans -- and some Democrats -- were wary of gun control.

Senate Republicans stalled, blocking the appointment of conferees -- the senators from both parties who would join House members in drafting the final, joint Senate-House bill. Senate Judiciary Committee member Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) wanted more Republicans at the conference. Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) was up-front about his objections: he didn't like the Brady bill.

Today, Democrats accuse the Republicans of bargaining in bad faith and getting cold feet when they realized that a Democrat-backed bill could pass. The real dispute, said Biden, was not habeas corpus, but "guns, guns, guns." If Bush accepted the Brady bill, Biden charged, the Republican right would abandon him.

Republicans say Democrats always bargained in bad faith, ready to bolt as soon as they could pin the blame for the bill's failure on Bush and the Republicans. Rep. Steven Schiff (R-N.M.) said Democrats deliberately softened the bill to get it passed in the House. "Biden threw a long pass over the heads of the Republicans, and Schumer caught it," Schiff said. "That was the bill."

Both sides agreed that as a practical matter some of the issues in conflict -- death penalties, the habeas corpus provisions and other items -- were close to meaningless as tools to fight crime. Biden called these "theater." Republicans wanted the death penalty, "so we gave them the death penalty; they wanted restrictions on habeas, we gave it to them," he said.

The death penalty debate was particularly macabre, as Democrats and Republicans competed to find larger and larger numbers of obscure federal crimes that could be stuffed into the bill. Bush's original bill had more than 40 death penalty offenses; Schumer's House subcommittee bill had more than 50 ("no accident that it was more than Bush," according to one Democratic source), and, in the full Judiciary Committee, Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) added a couple of new Republican ones.

"These things all affected extremely few criminal cases," noted Schiff. Indeed, Biden said the Justice Department told him that the bill's death penalty provisions in 1991 would have covered six out of more than 14,000 homicides nationwide. The habeas corpus provisions, he added, dealt with death row inmates and had no effect whatsoever on crime.

Short Shrift for Substance

Never mind. The hot items were the only things in which most members took a real interest. Left virtually unremarked upon throughout the debate were the serious, substantive features of the crime bill -- the $3 billion earmarked for law enforcement, prison construction, boot camps for youthful offenders and other crime-fighting provisions. These measures, Biden said, "could make a substantial difference."

But many Republicans disagreed. The crime bill may have authorized the spending of $3 billion, but in these days of the big deficit, there was little money to be found. The programs, Gramm suggested, meant "almost nothing." They were simply crafted to lure endorsements from law enforcement organizations by "selling them a bill of goods."

On Nov. 24, conferees finally met to draft a joint crime bill. It went badly. Democrats were convinced that Republicans had decided to sabotage the bill because the president couldn't support gun control. Republicans claimed the Senate-House Democratic conspiracy wanted a weak bill to force a presidential veto.

The Republicans refused to cooperate, but the more numerous Democrats passed the bill anyway. "The Republicans tried to stall, so I finally said 'Here's the bill,' and we passed it," Biden said. "Yes, we just {steam}rolled it."

The Bush administration promised a veto and launched a ferocious lobbying effort to derail the bill in the House, but on Nov. 27 the fractious Democrats held together long enough to pass it, 205 to 203. Then, a few hours later, Senate Republicans threatened a filibuster and threw the bill into legislative limbo. There it remains.

Although there is no crime bill, Democrats claim a victory in the politics of gridlock, having left the Senate Republicans with two rotten alternatives: blocking popular legislation themselves or forcing their president to veto it in an election year. At a minimum, the Democrats say, they hope they have neutralized crime as a campaign issue.

This offers cold comfort for a public worried about crime and fed up with Congress. The crime bill, said Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley recently, "is mostly hot air and b.s."

NEXT: Campaign finance

In drafting the crime bill, both parties in Congress played "can you top this" by prescribing capital punishment for ever more esoteric federal offenses:

-Espionage

-Treason

-Genocide

Attempts:

-to kill president and others under certain circumstances

-to kidnap president and others under certain circumstances

When death results in connection with:

-a drive-by shooting

-drug kingpins

-domestic hijacking

-international hijacking

-aircraft or vehicle destruction

-train wrecks

-bank robbery

-conspiracy to kill president

-conspiracy to kidnap president

-transporting explosives

-destruction of federal property

-destruction of interstate property

-mailing dangerous article

-conspiracy to kill or kidnap congressman, Cabinet member, Supreme Court justice or others

-kidnapping

-hostage taking

-torture

-use of weapons of mass destruction

-firearms attacks on federal facilities

-conspiracy to deny federal rights

-deprivation of federal rights under color of law based upon race

-deprivation of federal rights based upon race, religion or national origin

-interference with religion

Killing:

-law enforcement officials in connection with drug offenses

-someone intentionally during any drug felony

-a juror or court officer to obstruct justice

-a witness in retaliation

-persons aiding federal investigation

-a witness in the witness protection program

Assassinating:

-the president

-a congressman, cabinet member, Supreme Court justice or others

-Murder:

-of foreign officials

-of certain federal officials

-by federal prisoner serving life

-for hire

-in aid of racketeering

-of American national abroad

-of American national abroad by another American national

-by escaped federal prisoners

-during federal crime of child abuse, sexual abuse, rape

-by firearm during federal crime of violence

-on federal jurisdiction

SOURCE: House subcommittee on criminal justice