WASHINGTON - House members overwhelmingly passed legislation creating a widely popular nationwide Amber Alert network yesterday, but they bundled it with a host of other child protection measures whose support in the Senate is uncertain.
A conference committee will likely be convened soon to forge compromise legislation between the House's large package of mostly punitive programs and the standalone national Amber Alert measure that the Senate passed in January.
Since the recovery two weeks ago of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teen-ager who had been missing for about nine months, pressure has mounted for congressional action on the Amber Alert legislation, whose main provision would coordinate "missing child" alerts among the 88 disparate city, state and regional volunteer programs currently in place.
Although the final bill passed 410-14 in the House, many House Democrats and senators oppose some of the harsher penalties attached to it, such as stricter sentencing guidelines. These provisions might imperil the bill's chances in the Senate, critics say, as happened last year when each chamber of Congress refused to consider the other's version.
Although President Bush criticized the House for failing to support the Senate's version last year, he is backing the House package. "I look forward to legislation reaching my desk as quickly as possible so that I may sign it into law," the president said in a statement after the bill passed yesterday.
Democrats, child protection advocates and Smart's father had strongly urged House leaders to vote on the Amber Alert program as a standalone measure, in hopes of speeding its passage, but they were rebuffed by House leaders and Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the House bill.
Sensenbrenner has argued that the main provisions of the Senate's bill have been put in place by the president, that its language is flawed and weak, and that the other measures in his bill are important to prevent child abductions.
"The Amber Alert bill passed in the Senate is feel-good legislation that doesn't pass anything not already accomplished by executive orders from the president," Sensenbrenner said. "We must ensure that law enforcement has every possible tool necessary to try and recover a missing child quickly and safely."
Amber Alerts are named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl abducted and killed in 1996. Amber is also an acronym for America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response. Under the Amber system, bulletins about a child abduction are quickly broadcast on radio and television and posted on electronic highway signs.
In addition to establishing a permanent position within the Justice Department to coordinate a nationwide network of missing-children alert programs, the $76 million House package would double funding for programs intended to expand the Amber Alert network's reach and effectiveness.
On the punitive side, it would eliminate the statute of limitations for child abductions and sex crimes, require a mandatory life sentence for twice-convicted child sex offenders, and deny bond and pretrial release for child rapists and child abductors.
Bryan A. Keogh writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.