WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Smart's father said Thursday that Congress should pass a national Amber Alert bill, and he accused a Republican leader of hurting children by trying to use the measure to pass other legislation.
Ed Smart criticized House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., for refusing to break the popular proposal out of a larger piece of legislation and let it move through the House alone, as it has in the Senate.
"His unwillingness to let the Amber Alert pass on its own is hurting children," Smart said on CBS' The Early Show. At an afternoon news conference, he urged Wisconsin residents to flood Sensenbrenner's office with calls.
If Sensenbrenner refuses, Smart said, House leaders should overrule him and bring the alert up for a vote on its own.
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.
House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said some GOP leaders sided with Smart. And in the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged the House to free the alert bill.
"When a child is abducted next week, we want to have the very best communications system to help get that child within the first 24 hours," Hutchison said.
"This is probably one of the few pieces of legislation that we actually pass that really directly results in lives being saved," said Feinstein.
But Sensenbrenner stood firm at a news conference Thursday afternoon, contending that the additional measures in his bill -- such as minimum 20-year jail sentences for kidnappers and doubling funds for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children -- were just as necessary to protect children.
The House overwhelmingly passed a similar version of that bill in October. The broader bill was expected to reach the House floor for a debate and vote by the end of the month.
Sensenbrenner said 38 states have passed Amber Alert laws, and the Bush administration already has directed $10 million to hire a national Amber network coordinator, train workers and upgrade equipment.
The Justice Department has requested an additional $2.5 million in the budget year starting Oct. 31 to help train law enforcement officers on use of the Amber Alert system.
Sensenbrenner said a separate bill on Amber Alert would not go beyond what the Justice Department is already doing.
"If the bill was separated out and passed tomorrow it wouldn't do anything," he said, surrounded by other members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., seemed more willing to jettison additional provisions to get a bill through. "I don't care how we get Amber passed. I want to get it passed," she said.
Elizabeth Smart, 15, was reunited with her family Wednesday, nine months after being kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City suburb.
The Senate in January unanimously passed legislation to spend $25 million on a national Amber network and provide matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training.
The House and the Senate passed versions of the bill last year, as well, but were unable to agree on the specifics before recessing.