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Vote on Guns Gives Clinton Needed Boost

House move to ban assault weapons is victory that provides a political lift to White House

THE ``Comeback Kid'' keeps winning the big ones, and that is desperately needed good news for the White House.

President Clinton's high-profile victory on a bill to ban 19 assault-style weapons boosts Democrats. It also gives the White House a political lift at a time when critics are blasting its policies in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, and other hot spots.

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Mr. Clinton's heavy involvement - lobbying members of Congress in the final hours - bolsters White House prospects when similar showdowns come on health care reform, welfare, and a sweeping crime bill. Clinton's credibility grows. (The next fight over guns starts in Texas, Page 4.)

The House of Representatives' 216-to-214 vote for the ban came with breathtaking drama. Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D) of Indiana reversed his ``no'' vote at the final moment and prevented what appeared to be a defeat for the White House.

An intense lobbying effort, orchestrated by the bill's chief House sponsor, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, overcame steep hurdles. Days earlier, the legislation was trailing by 25 votes, and one major newspaper declared it was ``headed for almost certain defeat.''

Political scientist Larry Sabato says the gun vote demonstrates that ``when there's a Democratic president and a solid Democratic Congress, the Democratic president will win.''

But not everyone was impressed by Clinton's performance. Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says this is becoming standard operating procedure for the president: Wait until the last, desperate moment, then ``go into a full court press.''

``Rather than pulling his chestnuts out of the fire, maybe Clinton is putting them into the fire in the first place,'' Mr. Hess says. ``It is all hurry-up-and-wait. It's herky-jerky.... The White House doesn't have a very effective planning mechanism.''

Even so, Clinton has proved repeatedly that on tough domestic issues, he's hard to beat, despite close votes. His tax package last year won by just two votes in the House, and one vote in the Senate when Vice President Al Gore Jr. broke a tie.

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The North American Free Trade Agreement, written off as dead, was revived at Clinton's urging. Efforts by conservatives to trim Clinton's budget lost by only six House votes after heavy lobbying. And the balanced budget amendment, popular with the public, lost by four votes in the Senate when Clinton opposed it.

Despite all this nail-biting tension, Dr. Sabato, who teaches at the University of Virginia, says: ``There are almost always the votes needed to pass something. If it's high priority, he [Clinton] can get it passed.''

Congress and the president know ``their fates are bound together,'' Sabato says. ``Democrats remember what happened when they didn't support a Democratic president [Jimmy Carter] in the late 1970s.'' The party lost the White House to Ronald Reagan.

ESS says Clinton also should get credit for skillfully cobbling together different coalitions for each big issue.

This time, for example, he got surprising votes from the Republican minority leader, Bob Michel of Illinois, and Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a staunch conservative.

The gun bill left many bruised feelings on Capitol Hill, however, and dealt a stinging setback to this city's loudest defender of Second Amendment rights, the National Rifle Association.

An NRA ally, Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declared: ``In passing this legislation, the House has unduly infringed upon the constitutional rights of millions of Americans on the basis of myth, misinformation, and media hype.''

Yet Rep. Steve Neal (D) of North Carolina, who supported the ban, told a reporter: ``We've got a war in the streets. The police are telling us they are outgunned. We've got to listen to them.''

Telephone calls deluged Capitol Hill for days prior to the vote, and emotions were high. Representative Hyde reported getting three death threats.

Advocates noted that although the bill bans 19 semiautomatic weapons as well as magazines that hold more than 10 cartridges, it leaves untouched over 600 other models for recreational shooting and hunting.

Some callers to Capitol Hill called that logic patronizing, however. A man from California told a congressional office: ``The Constitution says it is `the right of the people to keep and bear arms,' not hunting arms.''

Critics also faulted the president and his allies for saying these banned weapons are ``military weapons.'' In fact, automatic-firing military weapons were banned 1932. This bill deals with semi-automatics, which fire the same way millions of hunting rifles do.

Behind all the passion are two concerns. One side worries that crime is out of control. The other worries that this is a first, incremental step toward removing all guns from citizens' hands.

The bill goes next to a Senate-House conference committee.

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