President Bush may be pushing hard for Congress to give him line-item veto power to remove wasteful spending from the bills it passes, but the idea seems to be sinking on Capitol Hill.
Even though lawmakers are increasingly sheepish about the “pork barrel” projects the line-item veto is designed to fight, Democrats and some old-school Republicans in the Senate are so resistant to the idea that legislation to grant Bush this authority may not even get a Senate vote.
The House passed the measure a month ago, but it has run into opposition from Senate GOP veterans such as Pete Domenici of New Mexico, an “old bull” who sits on the Appropriations Committee, even though they supported a much stronger version that passed during the Clinton administration.
The latest incarnation doesn’t grant true line-item veto authority like the one the GOP-dominated Congress gave President Clinton in 1996. That version _ ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court _ allowed Clinton to strike items from appropriations and tax bills unless Congress mustered a two-thirds vote to override him.
What Bush is seeking would give him an opportunity to try to kill wasteful spending by singling out items contained in appropriations bills he signs into law and requiring Congress to vote on those items again. Both the House and Senate would have to vote to kill the items or else they would live on.
Opponents of the line-item veto idea say it erodes Congress’ cherished control over the federal pursestrings, and gives the president power to threaten vetoes as a means of punishing political enemies and bullying them into supporting his position on other, unrelated issues.
That wasn’t the way it worked, however, when Clinton used the line-item veto in 1997.
After stirring up a hornet’s nest with vetoes of military construction projects, Clinton applied a light touch with other bills and never issued threats to win concessions on other issues.
“Their heart wasn’t in it,” said GOP lobbyist Jim Dyer, who was the staff director for the House Appropriations Committee at the time. “And they ended up hitting as many of their people as they hit of our people.”
Some Republicans see it differently and have used the 1997 experience as an excuse to change their minds.
“The people who talked to me about it, who voted for the ’96 act and who are now reticent, say that the way that President Clinton used it was political,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “I thought it was fairly legitimate.”
Gregg estimated that eight or nine Republicans oppose the Bush line-item veto plan.
White House budget chief Rob Portman has been reaching out to senators in both parties to try to whittle down the opposition to the line-item veto, but he’s yet to make sufficient progress to push the vote tally near the 60 votes required to defeat a filibuster.
“I’ve told them I’m willing to look at it,” said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who’s unwilling to commit further.
But Domenici said, “I don’t think so.”
Beyond firmly opposed Republicans, there seems to be a sizable group that would vote for the line-item veto if pressed, but would really rather not. With sentiment like that widespread, it’s difficult for the White House to build momentum.
As for Democrats, only a few appear to be backing the new version of the line-item veto even though they supported a virtually identical concept when voted on as a watered-down alternative to the GOP proposal in 1995.
Back then, Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., co-sponsored the weaker version and nearly won a Senate vote. Earlier this year, he testified against it as an “iniquitous” _ or wicked _ proposal.
Still, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts backs the idea, as do Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
The idea behind the line-item veto is that wasteful “pork barrel” spending would be vulnerable since Congress might vote to reject such items once they are no longer protected by their inclusion in bigger bills that the president has little choice but to sign.
“Today, when a lawmaker loads up a good bill with wasteful spending, I don’t have any choices,” Bush said earlier this month. “I either sign the bill with the bad spending or veto the whole bill that’s got good spending in it.”
Still, GOP leaders aren’t making any promises. Maybe there will be a vote in September, but then again, maybe not.
“The line-item veto, I’d like to bring it up at some point, but nobody’s made any commitment to do it,” Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday.
© 2006 The Associated Press