House Republicans yesterday adopted a new legislative strategy that could have the effect of diluting -- or even killing -- gun control initiatives in favor of broad restrictions on the entertainment industry and its dissemination of violent material to teenagers.
In a surprise move, GOP leaders decided to divide the juvenile justice measure into two bills when it comes to the floor for votes later this week -- one focusing on youth crime and culture, and the other on gun controls.
While Republicans said the move was necessary to ensure passage of any bill, the approach also appeared aimed at giving wavering lawmakers political cover in the aftermath of the Littleton shootings: They could oppose gun control, while at the same time supporting an array of measures to curb juvenile crime and regulate violence in the media.
Even with the new approach, it was impossible to predict yesterday how the debate would turn out, as the House appeared closely divided both on the wisdom of further gun controls and on tough new restrictions on the entertainment industry.
GOP leaders were throwing considerable weight behind a proposed crackdown on the entertainment industry, despite concerns about its constitutionality. And on the gun control issue, momentum appeared to be gathering yesterday behind a plan by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) that would water down a Senate plan to conduct mandatory background checks on people buying weapons at gun shows within 72 hours. Dingell's plan, drafted with National Rifle Association input, would limit the background checks to 24 hours.
Dingell, one of more than 30 Democrats who regularly oppose gun control efforts, met privately with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and several Democrats on Thursday to discuss the measure, according to sources.
Dingell and Delay had "a meeting of the minds on the strategies and tactics" required for the gun debate, a source said. Neither DeLay's nor Dingell's spokesmen would comment on the meeting yesterday.
Dingell's proposal was one of dozens of amendments the House Rules Committee considered yesterday, as it began work on defining the parameters of the widely anticipated debate on the floor this week on the juvenile justice bill.
What was once seen as a relatively non-controversial bill became the hottest issue on Capitol Hill this summer in the aftermath of the Littleton school shootings in April. Last month, the Senate added a series of new gun measures to the juvenile justice bill, including requiring for the first time mandatory background checks for all firearm purchases at gun shows, mandating safety locks to be sold with new guns and a ban on the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips.
While House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) initially seemed to embrace these basic proposals, the House has dissolved into partisan chaos as lawmakers tried to fill in the details.
Republicans said yesterday that their plan to divide the juvenile justice bill into two measures was simply an effort to bring some order to the debate. A giant catch-all bill that included provisions on juvenile justice, gun control and the entertainment industry would simply collapse of its own weight, they said, and the House would end up approving nothing.
"This was D.O.A. if we had not split it up," a senior House GOP aide saw. "There was no other way to get the bill to the floor."
But the new approach -- devised by Hastert and other House leaders late last week and unveiled as the Rules Committee took up the legislation -- caught Democrats by surprise and fueled partisan bickering.
"I think what this is really about is an attempt to give the interest groups that want to kill the [gun] legislation the best chance to do that," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Democrats and Republicans are split internally on what to do in the wake of the Littleton shootings. But for the most part, Democrats have seized on the need for expanded gun safety measures, while Republicans -- led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) -- are insisting upon a cultural crusade that would impose much broader restrictions on minors' access to sexual and violent material.
Still Hyde and House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) appeared uneasy as they defended the new approach, making it clear during the hearing that they hadn't seen the details of the separate measures and were uncertain about how the legislation would be handled on the floor.
But Hyde was emphatic on the need to restrict minors' access to violent material. "The fact is, new gun laws and tighter control of the juvenile justice system are not by themselves a cure for the epidemic of youth violence," Hyde told the Rules Committee. "To be truly responsive to the issue of youth violence, Congress must identify and address the influences that cause young people to become violent."
But critics say that that Hyde and others are testing the limits of the First Amendment. And defenders of the entertainment industry, including Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), charge that Republicans have abandoned their philosophical commitment to smaller government in an effort to exploit the political weaknesses of Democrats, who have traditionally been aligned with the movie and television industry.
"It's a game of one-upsmanship," said Foley, who chairs the GOP Entertainment Task Force. "You've got the Democrats targeting gun control and suggesting the Republicans are in bed with the gun industry, and you have the Republicans targeting Hollywood and saying the Democrats are in bed with the entertainment industry."
Hyde's amendment amounts to perhaps the most visible "values" vote so far in the 106th Congress. While the House GOP leadership has decided against whipping members on either gun control or cultural provisions because of deep divisions within the party, several leaders have voiced support for Hyde's targeting of Hollywood and the television industry.
"It's extremely critical," said GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.).
Several social conservative groups have welcomed the initiative and begun mobilizing grass-roots support for the measure, including the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum.
The measure, which Hyde introduced last week and is still undergoing changes, would effectively bar minors from purchasing or seeing a range of items including films, books, pictures, sculptures and video games that qualify as obscene because they are "designed to appeal or pander to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest"; are "patently offensive" for minors or lack "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" for minors.
Hyde defines violent material as sadistic or masochistic flagellation, torture, acts of mutilation, or rape.
The bill also includes two less controversial measures, which would call for a federal study of the impact of videos and music on child development and the creation of a voluntary "code of conduct" for the entertainment industry.
"There's a rush to judgment here because people are trying to fix `it,' whatever `it' is," said Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti.
Critics of the bill say the measure would keep 17-year-olds from seeing such popular films as "Rocky," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List." Supporters say the measure, which carries a penalty of up to five years in jail, is much more tailored and would exempt those movies from the prohibitions.
Some scholars and lawmakers from both parties said that Hyde's approach is unconstitutional.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called it "the biggest assault I've seen on the First Amendment legislatively since I've been in Congress," while Judiciary Committee member Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said it "goes too far" by carving out a new category of restricted speech concerning violence.
"It is difficult to draw the line between historical violence that teaches us and destructive violence which has no redeeming value," Hutchinson said. "If we could come up with some language that would be constitutional, I would be delighted but it's going to be tough, on the violence side."
Hyde spokesman Sam Stratman said that the bill, if approved, would likely be challenged in court.
CAPTION: Rep. Henry J. Hyde is pushing for restrictions on violent material.
CAPTION: At House Rules Committee hearing on guns, from left, counsel John Flannery talks to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) hears from Julian Epstein, chief Democratic counsel to House Judiciary Committee.