WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore moved yesterday to make the rights of crime victims a key issue in his presidential campaign, but he immediately ran into claims that the Clinton administration is mainly to blame for denying those rights a place in the Constitution.
Seeking to put new emphasis on his anti-crime program, the vice president told an audience at Rhodes College in Memphis that he favors a constitutional amendment as part of a broader "crime victims bill of rights."
"I'm not satisfied," Gore said, "when accused criminals have all kinds of rights, but victims don't always have rights."
Those are almost exactly the same words Gore used last week in a new TV ad that the Democratic National Committee began airing in 17 states, including Maryland. That ad and his new endorsement yesterday of a constitutional amendment indicated that the presumptive Democratic nominee is intent on giving the issue high visibility.
The guarantees that Gore said he supports are accepted by all sides in the discussions over a constitutional amendment for victims' rights. They would give victims the right to be heard on sentencing, to have their safety considered in determining probation or parole and to be eligible for restitution from a convict.
An amendment has failed in Congress because of a disagreement about whether the provision would speak favorably of the rights of criminal suspects, as well as of the rights of victims.
Gore's Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, also supports a victims' rights amendment to the Constitution. But it is not clear whether Bush and Gore agree on exactly what such an amendment would say.
Yesterday, the Bush campaign criticized Gore's new embrace of victims' rights, saying it "rings hollow, considering his administration blocked a bipartisan victims' rights amendment" this year.
Capitol Hill discussions of a compromise on the amendment broke down in April because of a dispute over what, if anything, the amendment should say about threats to the constitutional rights of those accused of a crime.
The administration favored a provision that would say the new amendment should not be interpreted to "deny or diminish the rights of the accused." The main supporters of the amendment wanted it to say that, when the rights of the accused and of victims came into conflict, they should be "reasonably balanced."
Gore and President Clinton have been saying since 1996 that they favor a constitutional guarantee for victims' rights. But they have refused to go along fully with any of several revisions of an amendment that have been drafted.
That disagreement most recently led Senate leaders to withdraw the measure in April. It is dead for this year - except as a campaign issue.
After the failure in the Senate, Gore stressed that the administration maintained a "strong commitment to continue to work towards passage of a constitutional amendment that will ensure that victims' rights are fully considered in the criminal justice process."
At that time, the administration was attacked by victims' rights advocates. Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and one of the two main sponsors of the proposed amendment, blamed the administration for resisting compromise and contended that opposition assured the bill would fall short of the votes needed to stop a filibuster by opponents.
Roberta Roper of Croom, Md., who is co-chair of the National Victims' Constitutional Amendment Network, joined in the criticism at the time, accusing the administration of having "jettisoned any commitment to a level playing field" that would balance victims' rights with the rights of the accused.
When word spread last week that Gore was planning to state his support for the amendment in campaign ads, Kyl renewed his criticism and aimed it at Gore. The Republican senator argued that the vice president "didn't lift a finger as we struggled with his administration to obtain support for real rights for crime victims."
Yesterday, Kyl again lambasted Gore, saying: "Exactly one year ago, Al Gore said he would lead the fight for victims' rights, and then we didn't hear from him. Now, he is trying to use the issue in a political and fraudulent way."
Roper was more conciliatory toward Gore yesterday in response to his new endorsement of the amendment. "We accept his sincerity," she said.
This year, the amendment ran into opposition from the federal court system. The U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the federal courts, told Congress that it preferred new legislation dealing only with victims' rights in federal criminal cases, instead of an amendment that would make victims' rights binding immediately in state courts, too.