The House overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Thursday co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Reynolds denouncing President Clinton's decision to grant clemency to 16 jailed members of a Puerto Rican nationalist group involved in bombings in the 1970s and 1980s.
Reynolds, R-Clarence, began the floor debate on the resolution that said Clinton's decision "sends an unmistakable message to terrorists that the U.S. does not punish terrorists in the most severe manner possible under the law." The vote was 311-41.
Because the House has no power to block a president's broad powers to grant pardons and clemency, the legislation was widely seen as a symbolic move to embarrass Clinton and complicate his wife's path toward a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Nadia Velazquez, D-Brooklyn, a native of Puerto Rico, charged "the only purpose of this resolution is to embarrass the president and the first lady."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-Brooklyn, called the resolution "a travesty" and said it means "to embarrass the president and the first lady, who is considering running for the Senate in New York."
Nevertheless, five other Democratic members of New York State's delegation in the House voted for the Republican measure. In all, 93 Democrats joined majority Republicans to support the resolution.
But Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, strongly backed the president. LaFalce said adoption of the resolution, quietly unveiled by Republicans on Wednesday evening, marked "a sad day in the history of the House of Representatives. . . . We are not talking about convicted terrorists. They were convicted of weapons possession . . . and seditious conspiracy."
That, LaFalce said, meant they supported Puerto Rican independence from the United States. Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, was seized in 1898 as a prize in the Spanish-American War.
Although White House floated speculations about clemency a few days after Mrs. Clinton reportedly met with Reps. Velazquez and Jose Serrano, D-Bronx, who had been urging clemency for the prisoners, the first lady last week sought to distance herself from the controversy, saying she did not support clemency.
This infuriated Serrano, who then said Mrs. Clinton ought not run for the Senate. She said the president never discussed the move with her before he offered relief to the convicts. There are about 700,000 voters in the state who claim Puerto Rican heritage.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who could be Mrs. Clinton's Republican opponent in next year's Senate race, claimed Mrs. Clinton "originally strongly supported it but now she strongly opposes it."
Visiting a school in Queens on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton said she hopes the Puerto Rican community will support her despite her opposition to clemency for the ultra nationalists.
She reiterated her position that Clinton's clemency offer to release the imprisoned members of FALN -- the Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation -- should have been revoked.
Next week, New York's two Democratic senators, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles E. Schumer, will be put on the spot when the Senate takes up its version of the anti-clemency resolution.
Moynihan has already spoken out against the clemency move, but his chief of staff, Tony Bullock, said the senator wants to examine the wording of the legislation. Maura T. Dougherty, spokeswoman for Schumer, said he wants more information from the Justice Department about the individuals involved before making a decision.
The Associated Press reported that two more of the nationalists agreed to the president's conditions, bringing the number accepting the clemency deal to 14, White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said. Twelve accepted the offer Tuesday. The two accepting on Thursday are not currently in prison and will have fines reduced, Kennedy said.
Two of the militants have rejected the offer.
Most of those eligible were members of the ultranationalist FALN, responsible for some 130 bombings in the late 1970s and early 1980s that left six dead and scores wounded. None of those offered clemency were directly responsible for deaths or injuries, officials say. The original prison sentences ranged from 35 years to 90 years.