House Republicans vow action on Amber Alerts
Smart father blasts chairman for legislative strategy
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Republican leaders said Thursday they hope to pass a bill, possibly next week, that would enhance penalties for youth abductions and child-sex crimes, boost funding to help missing and exploited children, and encourage states to develop Amber Alert systems.
The move follows an unusually personal and harsh rebuke by Elizabeth Smart's father, who lashed out at a Republican committee chairman for what he called moves that imperiled efforts to establish national Amber Alerts, a system of alerting the public and news outlets about missing children.
"Lives are lost and, and the blood of these children is on someone's head," said Ed Smart, who singled out Rep. James Sensenbrenner for refusing to strip the Amber Alert measure out of a broader bill. Smart spoke to reporters from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he and his family were reunited Wednesday with Elizabeth, after her disappearance from her bedroom nine months ago.
The Senate passed a narrow Amber Alert bill last year, and Smart wants the House to do the same. The alert system is named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996.
But Sensenbrenner -- backed by child protection advocates -- said the broader bill, the Child Abduction Prevention Act, is critical to protecting the nation's children. Among its provisions are eliminating the statute of limitations for child abductions and doubling to $20 million an annual grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Sensenbrenner said the Amber provision, as written, would not do anything that isn't already in place at the Justice Department and would not establish a national Amber Alert system.
"The problem with the Senate Amber bill is that it doesn't do anything that isn't already being done," Sensenbrenner said at a news conference, adding that House action on the measure began before Smart's criticism.
In fact, the Bush administration has designated an Amber Alert coordinator at the Justice Department to assist states and has designated $10 million for that effort. Sensenbrenner said that 47 children have been recovered with the help of Amber Alerts.
Thirty-eight states have enacted their own Amber Alert systems, which involve instantaneously distributing information -- such as information on an alleged abductor's vehicle, license plate and physical appearance, and a description of the missing child -- to various radio and television stations and to electronic highway signs.
The legislation passed by the Senate and under consideration in the House would direct the Justice Department to assist states who want to establish Amber Alert systems, but it does not require states to take any steps. Sensenbrenner said the Judiciary Committee is to hold a hearing Tuesday on his legislation and, at that time, consider whether to make the Amber system mandatory.
Smart, however, did not make that distinction in a series of interviews Thursday in which he criticized Sensenbrenner and called for an immediate vote on "stand-alone" Amber Alert legislation in the House.
"This is not something that can wait one more day," Smart said. In a print statement, he said Sensenbrenner had displayed "a reckless disregard" for children.
Sensenbrenner said he is not willing to give up on the provisions in the broader measure, and he was joined at the news conference by other child protection advocates who suggested that Smart had confused the issue.
"God bless you Ed," said Robbie Callaway, chairman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We share in your joy, but the problem is not here on Capitol Hill."
Smart's criticism resulted in some sniping on Capitol Hill -- between the House and the Senate, and between some Democrats and Republicans.
Several senators, Republicans and Democrats, held a news conference to call on the House to pass the Amber measure on its own, and some House Democrats did the same.
"I think there's a little politics being played here," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who said he hoped to bring the Child Abduction Prevention Act, which includes the Amber provision, to the floor for a vote next week.
--Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.