WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration, anxious to win congressional passage of a $30 billion anti-crime bill, is refusing to fight for a death-penalty provision that is important to black and liberal lawmakers.
The provision, called the Racial Justice Act, would let death-row inmates use statistics to support claims of racial discrimination in sentencing.
White House officials yesterday said they have taken no position on the provision. But by taking no public position on it, President Clinton is capitulating to its Senate opponents, according to Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.
Angry caucus members vowed yesterday to try to use procedural blocks to prevent a House vote on the already delayed bill, once a final version is crafted by a House-Senate conference committee.
But administration officials believe they have a better chance to round up enough votes to squeeze the bill through the House than to break what is certain to be a Republican filibuster over the racial-justice provision in the Senate.
One sign that the administration may have gambled correctly came late yesterday when a group of 10 black big-city mayors - including Detroit's Dennis Archer, Cleveland's Mike White, Atlanta's Bill Campbell and Denver's Wellington Webb - wrote Mfume urging the Black Caucus to support the crime bill even without the racial-justice provision.
The mayors indicated support for the racial-justice measure. But they wrote that they did not believe it "should bring down the entire bill. . . . We cannot afford to lose the opportunities this bill provides to the people of our cities."
The central question now for Democratic vote counters is how many black representatives will abandon the legislation with the racial-justice provision removed. While some black representatives are likely to oppose the bill because of the administration's decision, legislative sources say others are likely to still support the huge bill - which will offer nearly $20 billion to cities to hire 100,000 new police officers and fund prison construction and crime-prevention efforts ranging from job training to education programs.
The bill's other sticking points, particularly an assault-weapons ban, remain to be resolved in the committee's negotiations on the bill. But House and Senate members from both parties said excluding the racial-justice provision will make passage easier.
Forty percent of convicts executed for murder since 1976 have been black, against 12 percent of the general population. The racial-justice provision was drafted as a result of a Supreme Court ruling that legislative authority was needed to let death-row inmates cite such statistics in appeals of their sentences.
Critics had asserted that the provision would result in death-penalty quotas or effectively wipe out capital punishment, and Senate Republicans said they would filibuster any crime bill that included it.
Mfume said the caucus offered compromises that included eliminating the provision's retroactivity, limiting inmates to one such appeal and adding an explicit ban on racial quotas.
White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said yesterday that Clinton would sign a crime bill whether it contained the Racial Justice Act or not.
But Mfume said the caucus - whose 38 Democratic House members had been among Clinton's most loyal supporters - would try to gather allies and make its passage difficult.
At an emergency meeting yesterday, 22 caucus members said they would vote against a procedural rules move that would bring the crime bill to the House floor. The other 16 members were absent.
But even if all 38 vote no, they could not block the bill without help. A similar rules vote on the House crime bill passed last April by a 244-176 vote. Only six Democrats, one of them a black caucus member, voted against the measure. The bill went on to pass the House on a 285-141 vote.
Information from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.