WASHINGTON -- Targeting child kidnappers, molesters and pornographers, the House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved protections including a national Amber Alert network and legislation to strengthen federal anti-pornography laws.
Approved by a 400-25 vote, the legislation was called "the most important and far-reaching child protection legislation in the past 20 years" by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner shepherded the stronger criminal penalties through the House by attaching them to the popular Amber Alert kidnapping-notification legislation. That measure was sought by the family of Elizabeth Smart, who was recovered in March after being taken from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City last year.
"The overarching goal of this comprehensive package is to stop those who prey on children before they can harm children," said Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The national network would be named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later found murdered.
Sending bill on to Bush
Senators started working on the legislation late Thursday. It was uncertain when final passage might come. Republicans hoped to send it to President Bush before leaving for their Easter break today.
"We need to cast aside partisan disputes and quickly pass this measure and send it to the president for his signature as soon as possible," said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Some Democrats, who support the Amber Alert bill passed by the Senate, have objected to provisions in the compromise that they say would take away federal judges' discretion in sentencing criminals.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota accused Republicans of "kidnapping the Amber Alert bill in an attempt to achieve partisan and wholly unrelated goals gutting judicial sentencing guidelines."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said they would have gladly passed just the Amber Alert bill months ago. "But we question and wonder why it should carry with it such extraneous kinds of material which this legislation carries," he said.
A Republican-dominated negotiating committee took less than three hours Tuesday to pound out a compromise version of different bills that had passed the House and Senate.
Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who also supported the stand-alone bill, said the compromise would be better than waiting even longer to get the national network in place. "It should not have been this hard, but we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Republicans said the child protection measures were needed, too.
"Amber Alert is wonderful at attempting to retrieve children who are kidnapped and taken across state lines," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla. "What we've tried to do is to deter and punish people and put them behind bars."
Democrats had threatened to use a procedural maneuver to block final approval of the legislation because of House language making it harder for federal judges to stray from official sentencing guidelines for criminals.
Republicans say the language would only apply to child sex crimes. Democrats say the language would affect almost all federal crimes, taking away judges' discretion on sentencing criminals.
Lawmakers rushed to get the Amber Alert legislation through after Elizabeth Smart was returned to her parents in March. "The family is grateful for passage in the House and they are very, very anxious to see the legislation pass in the Senate so it can be enacted into law," Smart family spokesman Chris Thomas said.
The legislation would provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training for the network, which will distribute information quickly, through radio and television broadcasts and electronic highway signs, about kidnapped children and their abductors.
On the Net:
Information on the bill, S. 151, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov