WASHINGTON - Congress has eliminated direct financing for a Justice Department program that has been the centerpiece of the Bush administration's efforts to prosecute black-market gun crimes.
The move, which congressional officials attributed to competing budget priorities, cuts federal grants to local and state law enforcement agencies investigating and prosecuting crimes committed with guns.
It also raises questions about the administration's ability to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to support its legislative priorities, after Republicans last month blocked an intelligence overhaul backed by the White House.
The administration had sought $45 million for local grants under the gun prosecution program, Project Safe Neighborhoods.
That would have been a sharp increase in grants for a program that President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have hailed as a critical way to crack down on gun trafficking and gun-related crimes.
"If you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time," Bush is quoted as saying on the Web site for the program, www.projectsafeneighborhoods.com.
But in passing a $388 billion spending bill Nov. 20, Congress erased all the direct money sought for the program.
Need 'taken care of'
A related program to track and intercept illegal purchases of guns by youngsters, for which the administration sought an additional $106 million, also received nothing in the final spending package, although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which administers it, received an overall increase of $20 million.
"We didn't specifically set aside any money for the program," a spokesman for the House Appropriations panel, John Scofield, said. "But we think we've taken care of the need because we provided $900 million over what the administration asked for in other general assistance for states and locals."
Most of those broader programs are not specifically tied to gun enforcement, but instead provide money for a variety of law enforcement problems such as detaining illegal immigrants and gang violence, and could be used to supplement gun programs, Scofield said. He added that the reduction in direct financing for the gun program "is the reality of a lean budget."
"It's a matter of priorities," he said, "and there are going to be things you can fund and things you can't."
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Monica Goodling, said the department "was disappointed that Congress did not provide the full amount that President Bush sought" but would "continue to vigorously combat gun crime in America."
Other funds survive
The immediate effect of the cutback on gun investigations and prosecutions is unclear.
Financing for other anti-gun programs related to Safe Neighborhoods remains intact, totaling $200 million, and administration officials said they would try to find money from elsewhere to offset the gap that Congress left.
Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which has been a major backer of the gun program as a way to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, said he believed that financing in the federal pipeline and improved cooperation in place at the local, state and federal levels would allow the initiative to continue uninterrupted "whether or not there's a specific line-item."
Gun control advocates and some law enforcement officials said they believed that the cutback sent a troubling message about the federal commitment to fighting gun crime and trafficking.
"The administration has been touting this program as one of their great successes," John Lacey, an official with Americans for Gun Safety, said.
"So the fact that they're letting this program just disappear speaks to the fact that either they are unwilling to combat gun crime or their promises on gun crime have been just empty rhetoric."