The House voted for an even more expensive $27 billion package, which is nearly as draconian as the Senate bill but would spend more on crime-prevention programs. Now the conference committee is attempting to reconcile the two versions.
By spanning the ideological spectrum, the bill would allow every incumbent running for re-election this fall to boast about how she or he got tough on crime. But in many ways – especially the three-strikes provision- it's a cheap applause-grabber that could actually make things worse.
If the retroactive safety valve is left on the cutting-room floor, the crime bill could serve to jam the nation's overcrowded prisons and backlogged courts even further, hampering the goal of swift and certain justice for violent criminals and their victims.
Twenty percent of federal inmates and first-time non-violent offenders, and politicians across the ideological spectrum agree that the prison space be put to better use. What's standing in the way of this consensus is Bill Clinton's timidity – and Janet Reno and Joe Biden's willingness to take a hit for the president.
In this election year when crime – and fear of crime – dominates the headlines, Kennedy's supporters tout his membership on the conference committee as yet another example of how Kennedy, with 32 years of seniority, can deliver for Massachusetts.
Kennedy underscored that point during a June 17 meeting at Boston Police headquarters with Boston Mayor Tommy Menino and Police Commissioner Paul Evans. Following that closed-door meeting, Kennedy emerged to meet the press and to predict swift passage of the bill.
"There's agreement on 85 to 90 percent of the essential parts," he said.
It was a chance for Kennedy to show that he's tough on crime and that his national clout benefits his constituents. He boasted of a truth-in-sentencing law he sponsored in 1984, noting that federal inmates serve about 85 percent of their sentences, as opposed to just 40 percent at the state level.
The senator said he'd add flexibility to the bill regarding how cities can use community-policing money – at Menino's request. "Now they can use the resources for people currently in the training program," Kennedy said. "We don't want to delay the utilization of individuals who are highly qualified, available, and can begin work in a more expeditious way. We will stay in close touch with both the mayor and the commissioner as the conference moves ahead to make sure that the special needs of Boston are represented."
"That's a big boost," Menino echoed on cue, "to actually put police officers on the street immediately. We brought up the issue several months ago to have flexibility on community policing. Now it's in the bill."
In addition to highlighting the senator's clout and responsiveness to local concerns, the Kennedy-Menino pol-and-pony show was also a demonstration of political loyalty: Menino is a long-time Kennedy operative who traveled the country for Teddy's 1980 presidential bid.
To critics, it must have looked like an election-year ploy. But according to Joe Biden, Kennedy established his crime-fighting credentials long before the current public hysteria.
"One of the things that surprise me when I come up here is how little people understand the part Ted Kennedy plays in criminal justice," Biden told the Phoenix in a recent interview. "He's been my absolute ally on 100,000 police, he's been talking about community policing for five years.