WASHINGTON -- With the switch of at least three votes, the Congressional Black Caucus made clear yesterday that it would come to President Clinton's rescue on the crime bill.
After a meeting at the White House with Mr. Clinton, three Black Caucus members who had voted against bringing the $33 billion measure up for final House vote last week announced that they had succumbed to his appeals to save not only the crime bill but perhaps his presidency.
"He was selling his presidency, the party and the fact that we will not get a better bill than this," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who found Mr. Clinton persuasive. "Every step forward in a positive way renews the confidence the people have in the president."
The black lawmakers got almost nothing in return and will probably have to give up a lot along the way to pick up the moderate Republicans whose help is also needed to make up the eight votes by which the bill fell short last week.
In fact, some Republicans raised the ante yesterday for their support. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House GOP whip, said the price for picking up Republican votes could be as high as $6 billion in cuts from crime-prevention programs, many of which help black communities.
A smaller faction of moderate Republicans might want at least $1 billion in cuts from those programs. White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said yesterday that the president would agree to cut $420 million.
The extraordinary amount of presidential pleading required to secure the help of black lawmakers in a critical moment seemed to demonstrate not only Mr. Clinton's weakness but also how much his closest political allies resent his presumption that they will always be there.
"I hope this drives home the fact that none of us should ever be taken for granted," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who agreed yesterday to help Mr. Clinton, after having resisted the president's entreaties before last week's vote.
Mr. Clinton thanked caucus members yesterday for being part of the most loyal Democratic faction in Congress. But 10 of the 38 black Democrats in the House voted against him when the crime bill, in an embarrassing setback for the administration, failed on a procedural motion. They were protesting the application of the death penalty to 60 more crimes.
The White House was counting on the crime bill to help Democrats in congressional elections this fall and provide momentum to pass Mr. Clinton's top priority -- health care reform legislation -- this year.
For weeks, the entire caucus had stalled final negotiations on the crime bill because Mr. Clinton could not win Senate agreement on a provision aimed at preventing racial bias in the use of the death penalty. This was the latest show of muscle by black lawmakers, who are asserting themselves increasingly on issues such as Haiti, health care reform and the federal budget.
"We don't like our position on issues to be automatically assumed before we even vote on it among ourselves," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Black Caucus.
With 38 black House Democrats now, compared with just 26 before the 1992 election, the caucus is large enough to affect almost any bill.
Yet the Clinton administration has many squeaky wheels to grease.
Forty-eight other Democrats voted against Mr. Clinton and the party leadership to block consideration of the crime bill. Most are conservatives from rural areas who regularly buck the president.
Mr. Clinton is resisting any wholesale changes in the proposed ban on assault weapons, which prompted the opposition of those conservative Democrats. But black lawmakers say greater pressure should be exerted to persuade white Democrats to change their votes.
"I think there is a frustration that, given our level of loyalty, we are asked to bend more than most," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's Democrat and Black Caucus member who supported the president in last week's vote.
Mr. Lewis, Mr. Rangel and Rep. Cleo Fields, a Louisiana Democrat, announced yesterday that they would change their votes to allow the crime bill to come up for a debate but would oppose the measure itself in a separate vote later. Their opposition to the bill probably wouldn't be a problem for the White House, because the bill is expected to pass if a vote to consider it is permitted. Most lawmakers don't want to be seen as voting against a crime bill, even though they might be comfortable blocking it on a procedural motion.
Mr. Mfume said support for the crime bill by the Black Caucus isn't just a favor for Mr. Clinton. "We have put our stamp on this bill," he said, referring to crime-prevention programs, the assault weapons ban and limits on use of "three-time loser" life sentences for repeat offenders.
Mr. Wynn noted that no crime bill has ever drawn so much support from black lawmakers. But by denying Mr. Clinton victory last week, blacks who opposed the measure gave Republicans and conservative Democrats the leverage to make the measure less attractive to blacks.
Those arguments mean little to black lawmakers like Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who said he remained deeply opposed in principle to the death penalty provisions.
"My position isn't a political position," he said. "I feel if you have a chance to stand up against racial injustice and don't do it, who will?"
The question is how much Mr. Clinton and his allies must yield to pick up the remaining votes they need from conservative Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Mfume guessed that one more black might change his vote to back the president; Mr. Lewis said he thought a few whites also would come along.
But even the 11 moderate Republicans who voted with Mr. Clinton last week told him that their support isn't assured. Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, who was among those 11 Republicans, estimated that $1 billion to $2 billion might have to be cut from preventive programs in the bill to capture most of the Republican moderates who support the assault weapons ban, and that toughening of the criminal provisions was needed.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore spoke somberly yesterday of the need for the $33 billion crime bill as he left his office to join a delegation of mayors and police chiefs lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Schmoke, a Democrat, said he has worked for more than three years on the crime bill with other big-city mayors. "We're trying very hard to explain to Congress that this is a matter that needs bipartisan support," he said. "It's essential."
For Baltimore, the bill would provide funding to hire more police, expand drug treatment programs and resurrect police youth clubs.