The Senate Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a Republican version of President Clinton’s counterterrorism bill that includes the most stringent curbs ever imposed by Congress on appeals by death row inmates.
The legislation, passed by a bipartisan vote of 91 to 8, includes nearly all of the major recommendations made by Clinton after the April 19 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City to strengthen the government’s powers to thwart, investigate and punish terrorist acts at home and abroad.
“This legislation will give law enforcement the tools it needs to do everything possible to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” the president said in a statement. “It will also help us prosecute and punish terrorists more effectively. I urge the House to do its part and get a bill on my desk without delay.”
The House plans to begin action a similar measure next week, virtually ensuring enactment of the bill, probably this summer.
At the insistence of Republicans, Clinton’s anti-terrorism proposals were broadened to include the GOP’s long-sought goal of sharply curtailing the habeas corpus appeals under which state-imposed death sentences can be challenged in federal court on constitutional grounds.
The bill would limit most death row inmates to one appeal filed within one year under time limits that would conclude most cases within two years of sentencing, ending the filing of multiple appeals that have gone on as long as 17 or 18 years. A second appeal would be allowed only under narrow circumstances, including new evidence that could not have been discovered during the first trial that shows “clear and convincing evidence” of innocence.
The legislation would “stop the frivolous appeals that are driving people nuts,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, argued during debate.
But critics contended it would trample on one of the nation’s most basic guarantees of a right to fair trial. “The perpetrators of the Oklahoma City tragedy will have triumphed if their actions prompt us to short-circuit the Constitution,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Nearly 3,000 prisoners are under death sentence nationwide, hundreds for a decade or more. Many states have imposed strict legal time limits on appeals, and the federal courts have steadily narrowed habeas access over the past dozen years without appreciably speeding up the process. The bill would have no effect on state processes that often drag on for years.
As recently as two weeks ago, Clinton opposed inclusion of the habeas provisions in the antiterrorism legislation. But he reversed himself Monday, cutting the ground out from under Democrats resisting the move.
Democrats failed to whittle back GOP habeas proposals. Conservative Republicans fared no better in an effort to virtually wipe out habeas appeals to federal courts, losing 61-38. But Democrats succeeded in convincing Republicans to scrap a provision that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said would have lifted an existing requirement that indigents be guaranteed counsel in capital cases.
While Senate Republicans originally eliminated some of Clinton’s anti-terrorism proposals, the Senate gradually added most of them back, including new wiretap authority, expanded use of the military and authority to put tracer elements in some explosives.
Civil liberties groups have complained the bill goes too far, although senators of both parties agreed that individual rights were protected.
The anti-terrorism bill, drafted by Dole and Hatch, would authorize more than $2 billion over five years - Clinton proposed $1.5 billion - to strengthen anti-terrorism activities, including 1,000 new law enforcement officials.
It would increase penalties for terrorist crimes and conspiracies involving explosives, broaden federal jurisdiction over terrorist-motivated crimes and create a federal death penalty for terrorist murders.
As recommended by Clinton after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, it would streamline procedures for deporting alleged alien terrorists and expand government’s authority to exclude suspected alien terrorists.
The bill did not go as far as Clinton recommended in proposing relaxation of electronic surveillance laws. The Senate voted to make it easier to get “roving” wiretaps of multiple phones that a suspect uses but rejected a proposal to allow emergency wiretaps without a court order. The House has included both wiretap provisions in its legislation.
A major difference between the House and Senate bills disappeared when the Senate agreed to Clinton’s proposal, approved by the House, that military personnel be used for technical assistance in cases of domestic terrorism involving biological and chemical weapons. The military can help now only in cases involving nuclear weapons.
The Senate also agreed to Clinton’s request for authority to require that tracing agents, called taggants, be included in explosive materials to make them easier to track. But Democrats had to agree to exclude gunpowder for small arms ammunition to appease the National Rifle Association and win over Dole and other GOP leaders. The proposed House bill would require taggants only for plastic explosives.
Both houses would require a study on whether fertilizers, such as those used in the Oklahoma City and New York bombings, can be made inert for bomb-making purposes.
The Senate also voted unanimously to make it a crime to teach, demonstrate or distribute information on bomb-making if the person knows it would be used for criminal purposes.
Unlike Clinton’s proposal, the Senate GOP bill bans foreign aid to countries that aid or provide military supplies to countries deemed to be terrorist by the U.S.
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