WASHINGTON -- More than two dozen Democrats in the House are prepared to oppose President Clinton and join Republicans who are about to undertake an early effort to repeal the nationwide ban on assault weapons that was passed by Congress and signed into law last year.
A letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich signed by 26 Democrats -- led by Rep. Bill Brewster of Oklahoma -- said they would use "every parliamentary opportunity and procedure to repeal the ban."
Egged on by the National Rifle Association, rank-and-file members of both parties in the House want to include a repeal of the ban in anti-crime legislation that could be discussed in committee as early as tomorrow and could reach the House floor early next month.
The movement started to jell the day after Mr. Clinton forcefully defended the assault-weapons ban in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. "I will not let it be repealed," Mr. Clinton said of the ban.
People on both sides of the issue say the House almost certainly has the votes to repeal the ban and may have the votes to override an almost certain presidential veto. The outlook is far less clear in the Senate.
House Republican leaders, however, would prefer to delay action on the divisive issue until after the first 100 days, which they have set aside to concentrate on their "Contract With America."
The contract includes a reconsideration of last year's crime bill but omits mention of the ban because leaders were afraid the politically explosive issue could sink their efforts to overhaul last year's controversial $30 billion crime package.
The leaders' negotiators spent much of yesterday in strategy sessions trying to figure out how to block attempts to use the new crime bill as a vehicle to repeal the gun ban.
The leadership discussed breaking the crime package into seven or eight separate bills so as to throw a procedural roadblock in the way of any amendments.
Whether the repeal is proposed sooner as part of the new crime bill or later as a separate measure, however, leaders said it would be hard to stop.
"I think that is inevitable," Mr. Gingrich told reporters yesterday of the repeal attempt. "Obviously, the president was sending out a signal that if that bill gets to his desk he will veto it," the speaker added. "It is very unlikely that we would stop such a bill from moving through the House."
Mr. Clinton drew a line in the sand Tuesday night concerning the ban on 19 types of assault weapons. In one of the more powerful moments of his State of the Union address, he declared: "I know, therefore, that some of you who are here because they voted for it are under enormous pressure to repeal it. A lot of people laid down their seats in Congress so that police officers and kids wouldn't have to lay down their lives under a hail of assault-weapon attacks, and I will not let that be repealed. I will not let it be repealed."
Nonetheless, there is heavy pressure in the House to repeal the ban, and that is where the issue will play out first.
The House Judiciary Committee could meet as early as tomorrow to take up the Republican plan to overhaul last year's crime bill, cutting money for crime-prevention programs and adding more money for prisons.
"Every vehicle that comes through that has to do with crime or guns is a candidate for having a repeal on it," said Tanya K. Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "This is the first candidate. And it's important to make a statement on the first candidate."
A top Republican aide confirmed last night that "the leadership and the NRA are working out their differences."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and who voted in favor of the ban last year, said the leadership wanted to keep the ban out of the new crime bill because it would transform the new crime bill "into a gun bill."