Women among casualties of impasse on crime bill


WASHINGTON -- The clocks said 2 p.m., but it seemed more like High Noon on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Joe Biden, his double-breasted suit jacket tightly buttoned in the 93-degree heat, strode from the Senate and out under a blazing sun.

"Same ol', same ol'," he said.

The massive Crime Bill, 1,100 pages long with a price tag of $31 billion and enough provisions to please (and anger) just about everybody, is in a state of paralysis bordering on rigor mortis.

The House and Senate, having passed separate versions of the bill, are supposed to be meeting in a conference committee to work out their differences. But no such meetings are taking place.

And the Crime Bill is becoming a woolly mammoth: too big to ignore, but in danger of becoming extinct.

Do you know what the vote is on the Racial Justice provision of the crime bill? a reporter asked Biden.

Biden stopped and gave him a Gary Cooper stare.

"I know what the vote is on every provision of the Crime Bill," he said.

And? the reporter asked.

"And we don't have the votes," Biden said and then turned and walked over to the shade of a dogwood tree.

The Racial Justice Act would let death row murderers escape execution if they could demonstrate that their sentence was part of a pattern of racial discrimination.

Relatively few lawmakers are enthusiastic about the act, but Rep. Kweisi Mfume and some members of the Black Caucus are threatening to kill the entire crime bill if they do not get it.

Some Senate Republicans, on the other hand, say if any form of the Racial Justice Act remains in the bill, they will filibuster.

Which would mean that unless Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the fathers of the Crime Bill, could come up with 60 votes to break the filibuster, the bill would wither and die.

And with it would die a ban on assault weapons. New prisons. Thousands more police officers. Community crime prevention programs. And the Violence Against Women Act.

And it is because of that last provision that Attorney General Janet Reno and four lawmakers joined Biden under that dogwood tree yesterday to announce that if anybody got in the way of the Crime Bill, they would be blamed for beating up on women.

"We cannot wait any longer," Reno said. "It's time for action now!"

"It's got to happen," Barbara Boxer, Democratic senator from California, said. "We have a way to handle this problem. We have a national plan for a national disgrace."

The Violence Against Women Act would pump nearly $2 billion into new shelters for battered women, improve lighting in parking lots, parks, bus and subway stations, and make "gender based assaults" a violation of federal civil rights law.

"Women could say, 'I don't give a damn what the state does,' and take their [attacker's] house, their car and their wallet in federal court!" Biden said.

"There are three times as many animal shelters in this country as battered women shelters," Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said. "No woman can be empowered if she is terrorized."

Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "Anyone who stands in the way of passing this bill is doing a disservice to themselves, their constituencies and America."

But who was he talking about? The Black Caucus? Republicans?

"In my judgment, there are a number of people who don't want to see a crime bill passed for a variety of purposes," Schumer said cryptically. "But a crime bill will be passed. Nobody is going to have the ability to stop it."

But Joe Biden isn't so sure.

"To break a filibuster, I need every Democrat and six Republicans," Biden said. "As of now, I don't have those votes. And I see nothing that is likely to change to get me those votes."

One solution would be for a compromise to be worked out in the conference committee.

"But the conference committee isn't meeting," Biden said. "And I'm getting, quite frankly, frustrated."

"Since the House passed the Violence Against Women Act on April 21, some 518,400 women have been victimized," Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said: "It is impossible to believe that Congress still hasn't dealt with it."

Impossible? Naw. I'd say par for the course.

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