THE bad news for President-elect Clinton: It is just possible Congress may give him a form of the line-item veto that he says he wants.
This is a power shift over the federal purse that presidents have sought for years. But the political responsibility for deficit spending that it lays at the president's feet could outweigh the leverage that it puts in his hands.
"It puts the onus on the president," says Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a Treasury official in the Reagan administration. "It symbolically gives him responsibility for controlling the deficit."
Yet the president can probably only successfully use it to delete a few billion dollars a year from a budget, Mr. Steuerle adds.
"It puts a lot of political pressure" on the president, says Mark Peterson, a Harvard political scientist, "and that's why Bill Clinton probably doesn't really want it."
"I think that's why Bush didn't really want it," says Gregory Sidak, a Washington lawyer and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and now Mr. Clinton have all asked Congress for some form of line-item veto, which would allow the president to sign a spending bill but veto items within it. To put them back, Congress would have to pass them again with two-thirds majorities.
Congress has never offered up this share of budget power. But the political equations are changing. With a Democrat coming to the White House, Congress no longer fears that the president will use budget items for partisan one-upmanship. And some members see a limited line-item veto as a valuable tool for Clinton to redirect federal spending toward strategic investment.
But such a measure would also change the balance of power within Congress "enormously," says one congressional staff member. In a House with more than 25 percent new members utterly without seniority and eager to change Congress's ways - or at least its image - that shift may be attractive.
"It changes the whole dynamic, the ability to wheel and deal and horse-trade," says the aide. The losers in the deal would be the senior members of the Appropriations Committees, the overlords of federal spending who cut most of the deals and dole out dollars in exchange for approval of the whole package.
Led by Senate Appropriations chairman Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, they have been the most vehement opponents of any version of line-item veto power for the president.Under a line-item veto, "everything gets more scrutiny," says Julian Epstein, staff director of the House Government Operations Committee. "Things will be measured in terms of the public merit of the particular item."
In the new year and alongside a new administration, says Mr. Epstein, some version of the measure is "one of the first items we're looking at on our agenda."
Last fall, the House passed a much milder version of a line-item veto. Called "enhanced rescission authority," it would allow the president to sign a bill, then rescind items of spending and force Congress to vote on them. His rescissions would fail unless both chambers backed them by simple majorities. The bill never reached the Senate floor, where opposition is more intense.
HOUSE Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington proposed enhanced rescission at a Monitor breakfast a few weeks ago as a compromise offer to Clinton, who has supported a line-item veto. Clinton expressed general support in return.
Senator Byrd's last public comment was unalterable opposition, but that comment was made well before the election.
In theory, the power to pull items out of the sweeping spending bills passed by Congress, sending the items back for a separate vote, is the power to embarrass Congress into cutting pork-barrel projects out of the budget.
In practice, the Clinton campaign's own forecast of how much alleged pork the president could cut is less than $10 billion - a thin slice of the federal deficit.
Even Clinton's estimate is ambitious. Stanley Collender, a federal-budget expert in the Washington office of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm, puts the Clinton figure at the very outside edge of plausibility.
The White House Office of Management and Budget found that the spending items that the Reagan administration opposed in 1988 added up to slightly more than $1 billion.
A forthcoming study by the libertarian Cato Institute surveyed 115 United States governors and former governors, many with line-item veto power, and found that 92 percent believed it would help restrain federal spending.
States with the line-item veto have had slightly lower spending growth than those without, says Stephen Moore, director of Fiscal Policy Studies at Cato. "It's not going to kill the deficit," he says, "but it's still a good thing."