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Clinton presses for anti-terrorism law

President Clinton and congressional leaders agreed Monday to work quickly to pass additional measures to combat terrorism, perhaps before Congress leaves for summer recess at the end of the week.

But after an hourlong meeting, it was clear that Republican leaders and the White House remained divided over specifics.

In a midafternoon session in the Cabinet Room, Clinton pressed Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, as well as other senior legislators from both sides of the aisle, to adopt several provisions dropped from the anti-terrorism bill passed last spring.

Among those provisions are expanded wiretapping authority for the FBI and studying the feasibility of requiring explosives manufacturers to add chemical markers to help trace bomb materials.

The congressional leaders agreed to appoint eight senior members from each party to meet again this morning with White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to devise a framework for legislation.

But both Gingrich and Lott declined to endorse the specific measures the president wants, or even to give their views, saying only that the bipartisan group would examine the ideas.

"As much as we want to get the terrorists, we want to do it in a methodical way that preserves our freedoms," Gingrich said at a news conference after returning to Capitol Hill. "And the goal here is not to allow the terrorists to pressure us into suspending the very freedoms that make America precious."

At the beginning of the meeting, Clinton sounded an optimistic note as he urged Congress to join him in a "long, disciplined, concerted, united effort," to combat both domestic and international terrorism.

"Because of the bombing in Atlanta and the destruction of TWA Flight 800, people are taking another look," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The meeting included Attorney General Janet Reno, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and James Kallstrom, the top FBI official in New York City, who is leading the investigation of the TWA crash and is an expert on wiretapping and surveillance.

Afterward, participants said the group discussed a range of options, including making terrorism an offense prosecutable under the federal racketeering statutes and allowing the military to consult with law enforcement in cases involving chemical and biological weapons.

The group also discussed providing additional money to help carry out such measures, and several members of Congress said one hope was to attach a measure to one of several pending appropriations bills.

One of the biggest sticking points appeared to be the issue of chemical markers that can be added to explosives to make them easier to trace after a bomb goes off. When Congress passed the terrorism bill last spring, it required the marking of plastic explosives with such "taggants" and required a study to review the safety of tagging other materials.

But, under pressure from the National Rifle Association, the final bill dropped common explosives like black and smokeless powder from the lists of substances to be included in the study, and Congress then did not appropriate money to carry it out. The administration now is asking for full financing for the study and wants it to include black and smokeless powder.

A coalition of civil liberties groups and conservatives last spring defeated other measures backed by the White House: expanded authority to obtain court-ordered wiretaps on telephones used by suspected terrorists as they move from place to place, and to obtain emergency short-term wiretapping authority like that already available in organized crime cases. And those same groups remain opposed to the measures.

"I think it's fair to say that one of the issues that will be difficult to resolve is the taggants," said Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But he said both sides would "make an assessment regarding what is possible" in the way of other measures that might be quickly approved.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, said that lawmakers and the administration would try to come up with some quick bipartisan solutions in the next 18 hours.

But he warned that "you can't have too high expectations for Congress to solve the terrorism problem."

"We can write all the laws in the world, but you can't stop nuts," he said. "Once people commit these kind of acts, we need to go after them with a vengeance."

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan said after the meeting that both sides had made a concerted agreement to cool political rhetoric. "If we start off with the usual quarreling," he said, "we'll end up with nothing."