WASHINGTON — In clearing the way for the use of the line-item veto, the Supreme Court has ensured that President Clinton may have arguably more power to shape congressional tax and spending bills than any other US chief executive in history.
But a big question remains: Will he get to exercise that influence more than once?
In essence, the Supreme Court has simply delayed ruling on the substance of an issue that would fundamentally alter the lawmaking process. The reasoning of the court majority: The president hasn't actually used the line-item veto, so it hasn't adversely affected anyone yet.
Moreover, the seven-justice majority looked askance at the group that had sued to overturn the law - six members of Congress. The ruling held that these lawmakers weren't personally injured by congressional passage of the Line-Item Veto Act.
Justices held open the prospect that someone can still challenge the line veto in court. But they implied that it should be a person who has directly felt its consequences - a contractor, say, who didn't get to build a dam because a president struck it from a spending bill.
"We must put aside the natural urge to proceed directly to the merits of this important dispute and to 'settle' it for the sake of convenience and efficiency," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority.
Presidents of both parties have sought line-item veto power for decades. Ronald Reagan campaigned for it, often; Mr. Clinton endorsed it even though it was part of the GOP's 1994 Contract With America. Proponents say it will help scrub the federal budget of pork and would match a veto power enjoyed by many state governors.
Detractors say its effect on the deficit would be small and it unconstitutionally cedes spending power to the president.
The GOP-led Congress finally passed line-item veto legislation last year. It took effect in January, but was struck down by a US district court judge as unconstitutional. Yesterday's Supreme Court decision vacates that ruling and opens the way for the new power's actual use.
Technically, the law allows something called "enhanced rescission authority." Under its provisions, a president can sign a bill and within five days still reject a specific spending item or large tax break.
Congress could reinstate an item via a separate bill. But it would have to muster a two-thirds vote to override an inevitable White House veto.
Congress may also try to bypass the law by placing language in bills that says they are exempt from the Line-Item Veto Act.