Specter challenges Bush’s claim that he can bypass laws

By Thomas Ferraro

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter introduced legislation on Wednesday to challenge President George W. Bush’s assertion that he can bypass sections of bills that he signs into law.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter’s bill would empower Congress bring to federal court lawsuits to test the constitutionality of Bush’s signing statements, which the president has appended to several bills he has signed.

In the statements, Bush has reserved the right not to enforce certain provisions of laws if he believes they impinge on his authority or interpretation of the Constitution.

Under the Constitution, Congress passes bills and the president may either sign or veto them, and give lawmakers an opportunity to override any veto.

"This bill does not seek to limit the president’s power, and this bill does not seek to expand Congress’ power," Specter said. "Rather, this bill simply seeks to safeguard our Constitution."

The legislation is expected to have broad support among Democrats, who have accused Bush of a power grab. Yet many Republicans have voiced objections, suggesting it may not get very far.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said this week he agrees with the White House that the president’s actions are constitutional.

"He (Frist) and I have a very sharp difference of opinion," Specter told reporters. "Let Congress decide. I think what we are doing will be noted at the White House."

The White House has said signing statements have been used by past presidents and help the public understand how a given law will be enforced while providing guidance to courts.

Under Specter’s bill, courts would be told they cannot rely on signing statements in interpreting federal laws.

An American Bar Association task force issued a report on Monday that said Bush has flouted the Constitution by issuing more than 800 challenges to provisions of laws he has signed, more than all other U.S. president combined.

For example, Bush signed a bill banning the torture of U.S.-held prisoners, but used a signing statement to signal that he might bypass the ban.

Other such statements suggest Bush might ignore provisions in an anti-terrorism law seeking more congressional oversight and reject a requirement that government scientists transmit findings to Congress uncensored.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said he believes Bush has issued too many signing statements, but at this point opposes a legal challenge.

Lott said Congress should encourage Bush to be more reserved in use of the statements. "If he ignores us, then we may have to do something," Lott said.

© Reuters 2006