But Kennedy also says he'll be looking to Biden for leadership, so there's still a danger that Kennedy will follow Clinton and Biden's lead and allow the gutting of the retroactive precision. "I believe, the last time I talked to Senator Biden," says Kennedy, "I think he's got a good attitude on this."
Kennedy need not fear that a successful effort to reinstate the retroactive safety valve would hurt his re-election chances. Both of his Republican opponents – and the state's junior US senator- say they support it.
"I think it makes sense to consider it being retroactive," says Republican Mitt Romney, who supports the overall crime bill. "It depends, of course, on the specific charge that's applied. If it's a first-time and not involving violence to another person and no weapon was involved, then it's something I think we ought to consider.
"I would also prefer to have the three-strikes focused on violent offenses," Romney adds. "The focus should be on violent crimes."
Says Romney's Republican-primary opponent, John Lakian: "My position is really straightforward. They incarcerate people who don't need to be incarcerated. I would be for the retroactive, vigorously. That would create immediate space for the people who are violent."
Lakian goes so far as to say that the absence of a retroactive safety valve could trigger, his opposition to the entire bill: "If it didn't include retroactivity and funding for additional prison space without a lot of hocus-pocus. I'd have to very carefully look at it. I'm a great believer that an elected official shouldn't pass 'feel good' legislation. If they don't have the guts to do retroactivity and some other provision, I don't feel obligated to support it."
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who is not n the conference committee but how played a key role last fall in the passage of the Senate crime bill ("Talking Politics", News, December 17, 1993), says he's been in touch with Biden and is optimistic about chances for the retroactive provision's survival.
"He [Biden] has made some offers and he' bvgys really been in a mating dance with House chairman Jack Brooks [a Texas Democrat] and the Republicans, trying to figure out what works," Kerry says. "I don't think a consensus has formed yet/"
"Without specifically mentioning the safety valve," Kerry adds, I have been given assurances that they will try and construct the program in a way that minimizes unnecessary prison construction, includes modular prisons, and deals with the question of first-time non-violent offenders. I think we open a lot of prison beds through a more reasonable policy."
But Kerry says opposition from the administration has bee intense: "Justice has been playing a lot of games. It's very frustrating."
More than a game
One Massachusetts citizen for whom the government's actions represent more than a game is Michael O'Rourke (not his real name), a Boston-area resident who is serving a five-year mandatory sentence in a federal prison for attempting to buy marijuana from an undercover agent.
O'Rourke had a fulltime job and paid taxes for years, but he could not pass up the opportunity to purchase 100 pounds of grass. No marijuana was actually involved, just his money (which was seized) and the desire to purchase the illegal plant. But because he had talked with a government agent about eventually buying a total of 500 pounds, he was charged with conspiracy to purchase that amount – triggering the five-year-mandatory sentence.