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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Surrounded by rescued Elizabeth Smart and the families of other kidnapped children, President Bush on Wednesday signed a wide-ranging package of child safety measures into law.
The legislation's centerpiece would expand nationwide a voluntary rapid-response network to help find kidnapped children.
"No family should ever have to endure the nightmare of losing a child," Bush said. "Our nation will fight threats against our children."
At the insistence of Republicans in Congress, the new law also strengthens federal criminal penalties for child pornographers, sexual abusers and kidnappers.
On a shining spring day in the Rose Garden, Bush's traditional "glad you are here" took on new meaning. Gathered close to him as he sat to sign the bill were several families, some with joyful stories of their children's rescue and some still suffering heartbreaking losses.
"In your great suffering and loss you have found the courage to come to the defense of all children," the president said. "Because of you, this critical measure is now becoming law. Because of you, children and parents you may never meet will be spared from the harm and anguish your families have known."
Among those present was the family of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. The electronic notification system that began as "Amber Alerts" in several states was named after her.
Also at the ceremony were Jacqueline Maris and Tamara Brooks, the teenagers abducted at gunpoint in Lancaster, Calif., and rescued 12 hours later when sheriff's deputies closed in on their abductor's stolen car and shot him to death.
Elizabeth Smart stood between her parents, wearing a white ribbon in her hair and a shy smile on her face. The Salt Lake City teenager was found in March, nine months after she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom.
The Smart family lobbied heavily for the bill -- and objected at first to including more than just the Amber Alert expansion for fear adding other provisions would kill the legislation.
The new law provides federal matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training to create a national network of Amber Alerts.
Bush said a nationwide alert network will be a vital tool to prevent children from being harmed.
"It will greatly help in rescuing the youngest victims of crime," he said.
Though the bill eventually won overwhelming support in Congress when it passed, Democrats had argued that restricting federal judges' ability to reduce sentences for crimes against children should have been more thoroughly debated.
Other provisions would prohibit the solicitation of anything represented to be child pornography, make it easier to prosecute sex tour operators and people who travel overseas for sex with minors, allow federal judges to order supervision of released sex offenders for the rest of their lives, make it illegal to attempt to take or keep a child outside the United States to avoid custody battles, and require convicted child pornographers to register in the National Sex Offender Registry.
Before the signing, the White House said the Smart family had requested that it not reveal whether Elizabeth Smart, who was taken at knifepoint from her bedroom last June, would be at the White House. Smart, now 15, was returned to her family March 12; two transients have been charged in her kidnapping.
Also Wednesday, Bush awarded Alabama elementary school teacher Betsy Rogers the title of national teacher of the year, kicking off her year as a roving educational ambassador.
And he met with a group of key congressional Republican congressmen to look ahead to the next four weeks of work on Capitol Hill, a follow-up to a Tuesday evening White House strategy session with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
In the afternoon, Bush was welcoming Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to the Oval Office for a meeting in which the Latin American leader planned to seek trade concessions, a bilateral free-trade agreement between the two countries and continued U.S. commitment to fighting a long-running insurgency.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)