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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A wide-ranging package of child safety laws needed cajoling by the families of kidnapped children to make it through Congress, but when it came time to vote, both houses gave Amber Alerts overwhelming approval.
President Bush was signing the package into law Wednesday in the Rose Garden, surrounded by families with joyful stories of their children's' rescue and those still suffering heartbreaking losses.
The legislation's centerpiece is expanding nationwide a voluntary rapid-reponse network to help find kidnapped children.
The electronic notifications named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, -- kidnapped and murdered in 1996 -- now speed information over radio and television and electronic highway signs in several states.
The legislation provides federal matching grants to states and communities for equipment and training to create a national network.
The Hagerman family was to be one of eight families, all of whom have had a children kidnapped or missing, to join Bush.
Others attending include 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; and the family of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teenager found in March, nine months after she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom.
At the insistence of Republicans in Congress -- and after lobbying by the Smarts -- the bill Bush was signing also strengthens federal criminal penalties for child pornographers, sexual abusers and kidnappers.
Democrats argued restricting federal judges' ability to reduce sentences for such crimes against children should have been more thoroughly debated, but the bill passed with broad bipartisan support: 400-25 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.
Other provisions include: prohibiting soliciting anything represented to be child pornography; making it easier to prosecute sex tour operators and people who travel overseas for sex with minors; allowing federal judges to order supervision of released sex offenders for the rest of their lives; making it illegal to attempt to take or keep a child outside the United States to avoid custody battles; and requiring convicted child pornographers to register in the National Sex Offender Registry.
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.
Bush was also awarding Alabama elementary school teacher Betsy Rogers the title of national teacher of the year, kicking off her year as a roving educational ambassador.
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.
Bush was also meeting Wednesday 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.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)