For the first time in US presidential history, Bill Clinton is today expected to strike something from the just-passed federal budget using the line-item veto - a move that will carry more symbolic than financial significance.
While the action is expected to have little practical effect on the budget, analysts say it will send a message to lawmakers who have long larded US spending bills with pork-barrel projects for their districts.
Using the veto now works like nuclear deterrent, says Stanley Collender, a federal budget expert at Burson-Marsteller, a communications firm here. "It makes the fall threat more credible," he says, referring to the president's ability to convince lawmakers he will not sign off on blatant pork when they send individual spending bills to him in September.
Presidential hand-wringing went on most of the weekend, as Mr. Clinton and his aides debated whether to exercise the line-item veto now or wait until fall. Raul Emanuel, the president's senior adviser, intimated yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the "deterrent" argument has prevailed.
When Clinton announces the details of his decision today, "the American people will see that business as usual is over in Washington," Mr. Emanuel said. "We're proud of the budget agreement, but if there's an item that doesn't meet national spending priorities, it's going to be line-itemed."
Emanuel declined to reveal which items in the budget package the president will veto, but he did say Clinton's action would "impact both the spending and tax sides" of the accord.
ANALYSTS say the real power of the line-item veto is that it gives the executive branch new leverage to exert against individual lawmakers. A president can offer to preserve pet spending items in return for a congressman's support of presidential initiatives.
Some White House aides had urged the president to wait to use the veto pen. Using it on later spending bills, marbled with pork, would be less likely to upset the delicate balance of the current budget deal, they argued. Striking single, unpopular spending items, such as the $6 million National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture research facility that will go to West Virginia courtesy of Sen. Robert Byrd (D), may also establish firmer constitutional grounds for an inevitable court challenge.
Indeed, Clinton appears to be sensitive to the fact that his first veto will likely be grounds for a lawsuit. "This being the first time, the president wants to assure that it's done properly," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
A challenge, likely to be filed by week's end, could lead to a hasty undoing of the line-item-veto law, say some constitutional scholars. The line-item legislation has a built-in, fast-track judicial review clause, ensuring quick consideration in the courts. A challenge could be kicked up to the high court as soon as six months later.
"This is not the kind of case where you need a big trial record. It is largely a matter of law," says constitutional law expert William Van Alstyne at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
In a high court case on the issue in June, the court did not tip its hand to the final direction it will take, he says. That finding determined that six lawmakers who had filed suit against the line-item-veto law had no grounds for a challenge because a veto had not been cast and the authority never used.
The justices will reject the line-item veto once they get a valid case, Mr. Van Alstyne believes. "If I were wagering, I would forecast that will be the outcome," he says, pointing to the writings of three federal judges who have addressed it on merits and found it unconstitutional.
Forty-three governors have some version of a line-item veto. But budgeteers estimate its use saves less than 1 percent of all spending. A Government Accounting Office study estimates that in a best case, Clinton's veto pen could save about $10 billion dollars, a drop in the $1.5 trillion federal budget.