House, Senate Ready to Start Final Maneuvers on Amber Alert Bill

An upcoming procedural ruling on whether a last-minute amendment should be part of the bill could kill the process, and lawmakers would have to start over.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) -- House and Senate Republicans moved quickly to try for final congressional approval of a package of child protection legislation before heading home for Easter.

However, a procedural maneuver by Senate Democrats could kill legislation creating a national Amber Alert child kidnapping notification network and strengthening child pornography laws. Some Democrats have objected to provisions they say would take away federal judges' discretion in sentencing criminals.

A Republican-dominated negotiating committee pounded out a compromise version of the different House and Senate bills in less than three hours on Tuesday, and the House is expected to take up and pass a House-Senate compromise package on Thursday.

But approval in the Senate could hinge on a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, who decides procedural matters for senators.

Right before the House passed its first version of the bill, Republicans inserted language that would make it harder for federal judges to stray from official sentencing guidelines for criminals.

Republicans say the language would only apply to child sex crimes, but Democrats say a hastily written amendment offered by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would affect almost all federal crimes, taking away judges' discretion on sentencing criminals.

That language -- which has been strongly opposed by Democrats -- shouldn't have been considered by the negotiating committee or included in the final compromise because it has nothing to do with either the Amber Alert system or child pornography, Democrats said.

Senate rules say only related materials can be considered in a conference committee, and Democrats filed an official objection on Wednesday, said a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

If the parliamentarian rules with the Democrats and his ruling is upheld, it would kill the compromise, and House and Senate lawmakers would have to start from scratch.

Senate aides did not know exactly when the ruling would be made.

The compromise legislation would authorize creation of a national child kidnapping notification network named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later found murdered.

The legislation would provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training for the Amber Alert network, which will distribute information quickly, through radio and television broadcasts and electronic highway signs, about kidnapped children and their abductors.

It also would crack down on child pornography by strengthening bans on depicting minors in obscene material, while dealing with the Supreme Court's constitutional problems with an earlier version.

The legislation is in response to a court ruling last April, which struck down a 1996 law that specifically prohibited virtual child pornography. The court said banning images that merely appear to depict real children engaged in sex was unconstitutionally vague and far-reaching.

The compromise legislation would prohibit the pandering or solicitation of anything represented to be child pornography. Responding to the court ruling, it also requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person intended others to believe the material was obscene child pornography.

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