LITTLE DELAWARE played a big role in...


LITTLE DELAWARE played a big role in getting the omnibus crime bill successfully through Congress.

Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee, skillfully and doggedly negotiated a compromise (it took six years) with conservative Republicans last November, which the Senate passed 95-4.

Then the House approved its version. Then a conference committee approved its version.

Then the House seemed to have killed the thing.

That was on Aug. 11, when on a procedural motion the House voted narrowly to take no final action on the bill.

Only 11 Republicans were willing to keep the bill alive. Freshman Rep. Mike Castle of Wilmington wasn't one of the 11. But he immediately began trying to negotiate a deal between the Democratic leadership and a group of moderate to conservative Republican representatives.

Democrats agreed to cut the bill a few billion dollars here and a few billion there, and 42 Castle-led Republicans voted to take up the bill after all. It passed, with 46 Republicans providing the margin of victory.

Back to the Senate, where Republicans now opposed the bill because there was more money authorized than in the original Senate bill. Democrats needed 60 votes to prevail under the parliamentary situation, which meant they needed Republican votes.

Ultimately they got 61 votes, by winning over seven Republicans on the crucial roll call. One of those was cast by Sen. William Roth, Delaware's other senator, a very senior Republican.

Roth is a longtime foe of one of the bill's titles, a ban on some assault weapons, so his vote was a big switcheroo. Some commentators attributed this to Senator Biden's influence. Biden made a wonderful speech (this column, Aug. 25) that may have swayed some senators, and may have contributed to greater public pressure in Delaware on Roth, but I believe a fourth Delaware pol probably had even more influence on Roth.

That would be Delaware Attorney General Charles Oberly III. He's a Democrat running to unseat the Republican Roth. Unlike in Maryland, the A.G. of Delaware is also the state's chief criminal prosecutor. Oberly is running a hard-hitting law-'n'-order campaign. It appears to be the No. 1 issue.

He supported the Senate version of the crime bill, and worked with his fellow Democrat Biden to help draft parts of it in a way attractive to other state A.G.s, an important ally in this fight.

On the assault weapons ban, Oberly has been making hay by pointing out that in 1986 he joined with a Republican governor -- Mike Castle -- to work for a gun control law in Delaware.

After the Senate passed the crime bill, a Democratic senator called Oberly to say, "Congratulations on your first vote in the Senate!" -- meaning Roth's "yea."

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