The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Senate Democratic leaders struggled Wednesday to pass the $30 billion crime bill, saying it was being "held hostage" by Republicans who appeared to be amassing enough votes to block its progress.

President Clinton, meanwhile, exhorted lawmakers to "put away the excuses" for inaction.

"All we want is to vote on the crime bill," said Majority Leader George Mitchell after Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole proposed votes on a series of amendments to the bill that the House also would have to approve. The Senate could not vote until the House acts.

"It appears to be a continuation of an effort to kill the crime bill by indefinite delay," Mitchell, the Maine Democrat, said, suggesting that the House would reject some amendments and add new ones, including one to strip out the ban on assault-style firearms.

"We don't want the crime bill held hostage to a list of other amendments. We want to free the crime bill," he added.

Meanwhile, several senators vowed to fight on.

"We're going to win or we're going to go down with our colors flying," said Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. "We're not going to get rolled."

"All we are asking is that some of these provisions we fought hard for on the floor be given consideration by the House and be put back in," argued Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Republicans have complained that a House-Senate compromise bill now before the Senate bears little resemblance to a form of the legislation that passed the chamber 95-4 last November. They have threatened to use a procedural maneuver to thwart the measure.

Democrats have said that GOP charges of "pork" spending are disingenuous and have said the measure contains the very kinds of crime-fighting programs that law enforcement officers want.

For his part, President Clinton kept up the pressure from the White House.

"This bill is centrist and bipartisan to its very bone," he told members of the International Convention of B'nai B'rith in Chicago via satellite. "It's time to put away the excuses, the blame and the politics and join forces and pass this crime bill now."

But on the Senate floor, and in the cloakrooms, offices and corridors, the principal question was which party, Democrat or Republican, had the votes to work its will. The existing crime bill was passed by the House 235-195 on Sunday, with 46 Republicans supporting it.

Mitchell, D-Maine, told colleagues: "It's clear a substantial majority of the Senate would support the bill." But he also said he did not know if enough Republicans would join the Democrats to block a GOP procedural move.

The so-called "point of order" on a budgetary question relating to the bill would, if successful, undo the package that had been painstakingly negotiated in the House.

But Republicans, too, were hedging their bets.

When Dole was asked if he had the 41 votes needed to uphold the procedural challenge, he said, "I hope I have. I think I have." Supporters of the bill would need to muster 60 votes to turn back the challenge.

If the compromise bill passed by the House on Sunday is reopened immediately for GOP amendments, it would have the effect of sabotaging the legislation. Changes would require the House to take up the bill again, and there would likely be more problems there.

The anti-crime bill would set up a federal-state-local partnership aimed at placing an additional 100,000 police officers on the streets. Furthermore, it would require life sentences for some third-time felons and would expand the federal death penalty to cover more than 60 crimes.

Although neither Democrats nor Republicans were rushing to test their voting strength on the Senate floor, Dole used the threat of the procedural move to pursue his tug-of-war with Mitchell. He asked Mitchell to allow votes on 10 amendments to the crime bill. They would be voted upon as a separate resolution.

Absent from this GOP wish list was any language attempting to remove the crime bill's proposed ban on assault-style weapons. Nevertheless, many of the amendments were attractive and involved items that had been approved by the Senate last November.

"If they want to vote against all these things, welcome to it," Dole said. If any of the amendments passed, a resolution containing them would be sent to the House.

But even if the House then passed the amendments intact something considered unlikely Dole said Republicans would still insist that supporters of the conference crime bill come up with 60 votes to pass it in the Senate.

"Under any scenario, there will be a cloture vote," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a board member of the National Rifle Association, which has lobbied strenuously against the firearms ban. Under Senate rules, it takes at least 60 of the 100 senators to end a filibuster.

There was no immediate response from Mitchell, who had reacted to an earlier set of 13 amendments from Dole by suggesting that the crime bill be passed now and the amendments considered separately in the fall.

Among the amendments were ones for striking $5 billion in "social spending" from the compromise bill and another one sparing $1.6 billion for a Violence Against Women Act to improve handling of domestic violence cases.

The crime bill would authorize $13.45 billion for law enforcement, including an $8.8 billion contribution to a program with the goal of putting 100,000 more police on the streets; $9.85 billion for prisons and $6.9 billion for crime prevention, including drug courts. The balance is nearly 45 percent for law enforcement, almost 33 percent for prisons and 23 percent for crime prevention and drug courts. Read Next Article