Friday, March 14, 2003

Politics mire national Amber Alert

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington bureau

WASHINGTON - Politicians of both parties Thursday pounced on the miraculous recovery of Utah teen Elizabeth Smart to push for a national Amber Alert system.

But by day's end, it was clear that nothing - not even something everyone supports - gets done simply in Congress.

"There's a little politics being played here," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Amber alerts, named after a 9-year-old Texas girl who was abducted and murdered, are urgent bulletins broadcast when a child is abducted. Electronic highway signs display the abductor's license or car description. Television and radio relay pictures or descriptions of the abducted child and the kidnapper.

Already, 38 states have created such programs, including Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. They are credited with saving 48 children, though Elizabeth's recovery was not attributed to one.

Among the estimated 58,000 children believed abducted by nonfamily members is Erica Baker of Kettering, who was 9 when she disappeared in 1999 while walking the family dog. That was before Amber alerts.

"I wish it'd been in place then," said Erica's grandmother, Pam Schmidt. "But it's a waste of energy to say what could have been. Let's just get it in there. Now's the time to do it."

Factions pushing competing versions have stymied attempts in Congress to create a national Amber Alert system. A series of dueling news conferences Thursday afternoon showed that deadlock would continue.

The Senate this year unanimously passed a bill to create a national Amber Alert system, providing $25 million for training and establishing an Amber Alert coordinator in the Justice Department.

A group of senators, including both Republicans from Utah, called on the House to get their bill to the president as soon as possible.

"Elizabeth Smart's return should give everyone hope," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "Getting information out can bring these children home, even after long periods of time. But those early hours are the most critical, and that's where the Amber Alert can be the most effective."

Meanwhile, House Republicans are pushing a much more sweeping bill that not only creates a national Amber Alert system, but also overhauls laws concerning child kidnapping and sex crimes. In the House bill, abductors would get a minimum of 20 years in prison and second-time offenders would be imprisoned for life. Sex offenders would be supervised for life, and suspects could not be released before trial.

Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, called on the House to immediately pass the Senate version and even criticized the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, for pushing his competing bill.

"If it was your child, I'm sure you would not be happy to see this legislation held up by one man," he said. "Jim Sensenbrenner seems to be exhibiting reckless disregard for not only his constituents, but children throughout the country."

Pam and Mike Schmidt, Erica's grandparents, said they supported the idea of toughening laws against abductors and sexual predators. But it's not worth delaying a national Amber Alert, they said.

"If it came to the point where it meant no (national) Amber Alert at all, or if delayed it, I'd go it with Senate: Do it right now," Mike Schmidt said.

Senators, including fellow Republicans like Sensenbrenner's Senate counterpart, Sen. Orrin Hatch, also urged Sensenbrenner to simply pass the Senate version.

But Sensenbrenner said the Senate version would do almost nothing that is not already done by the Justice Department thanks to an executive order President Bush signed last year.

"The problem is with the U.S. Senate doing too little, rather than the House doing too much," he said. He said his committee would vote on his broader bill Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he hoped to bring Sensenbrenner's bill up for a vote within days. But the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the GOP version was too controversial.

"It's almost as if the majority has gone out of its way to load the bill up and make it more difficult to get it passed," he said.

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