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House Passes Amber Alert Network

The House approved creation of a nationwide Amber Alert network Thursday after attaching several additional child protection measures to the bill, including a new judicial crackdown on sex offenders and mandatory searches for missing children in federal buildings.

The bill, approved by a 410-14 vote, now goes to the Senate, which earlier approved legislation authorizing only the nationwide child kidnapping alert network.

The two bills will have to be reconciled by House and Senate negotiators before any version can be sent to President Bush. Last year, the Senate refused to consider the House bill, and the House refused to consider the Senate bill.

House Republicans say their bill is better. The legislation "not only gets the word out after a kidnapping, but it also takes strong steps to keep them from happening in the first place," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

But House Democrats argued that the House-passed bill likely will meet the same fate in the Senate as last year, because its additional child protection measures face much more resistance in the Senate.

"Here we are again, facing the same misguided strategies, and this time again with even more reason for the Senate to reject the bill which the Amber Alert bill is buried in," said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, one of the sponsors of the Senate-passed bill, called on both chambers to put aside their differences and get something to the White House.

"This is critical legislation that we should pass right away," she said. "We can't let controversial provisions — regardless of their intent or merit — sentence this bill to a legislative limbo."

Republicans defeated a Democratic attempt Wednesday to let House members choose between their bill and a Senate measure. Before Thursday's final vote, the House added amendments instituting "Code Adam" alerts in all government buildings.

Under that plan, a description of children reported missing in government buildings would be communicated around the building and employees would monitor exits. Police would be called if the child isn't found within 10 minutes.

The program is named after 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a shopping mall in Florida and murdered in 1981.

The House also added an amendment aimed at banning computer-simulated child pornography. It was in response to last year's Supreme Court ruling that part of a 1996 law intended to stop such pornography was unconstitutionally vague.

Amber alerts are named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later found murdered. Bulletins are distributed quickly through radio and television broadcasts and electronic highway signs about kidnapped children and their abductors. The alerts are credited with the rescues of at least 34 children since 1996, the Justice Department has reported.

The AMBER — America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response — alert legislation passed by the Senate would create a national child kidnapping notification network and provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training.

The House measure pushed by Sensenbrenner would do much more. Accused child rapists and abductors would be denied bond and held in jail until their trials.

No longer would there be a statute of limitations on child abductions and sex crimes. Judges could extend to life the supervised term of released sex offenders and life sentences would be mandated for twice-convicted sex offenders.

Sensenbrenner's insistence on new punitive measures for sex offenses was criticized by the Smart family earlier this month, when they were reunited with their missing daughter Elizabeth nine months after she was kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City suburb.

"Our children can't afford to wait another day for the National Amber Alert bill so we urge the House not to waste this opportunity," the family said in a letter to the House.

But Republicans said it is just as important to prevent children from being kidnapped as it is to find them once they've been taken from their parents.

By Jesse J. Holland

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