Lawmakers Adapt to Line-Item Veto

As Clinton deletes 38 projects, Congress seems more likely to bargain than confront.

President Clinton's second use of his new line-item-veto power has supporters of 38 military construction projects scrambling to decide what to do next.

Their options are limited: They could file lawsuits and try to have the line-item veto declared unconstitutional. Or, supporters of vetoed projects could turn to Congress to try restore the funds.

Both are considered long shots. More likely, lawmakers who support the axed projects will resort to negotiation and persuasion - altering the projects to meet Mr. Clinton's objections or urging him to include them in future budget requests.

Whatever they do, the president's use of the line-item veto Monday changes the traditional relationship between the White House and Congress. Both are treading uncharted territory that most likely won't be fully mapped until the Supreme Court rules on the veto's constitutionality.

Meanwhile, administration officials say more line-item vetoes are on the way: The military-construction bill was the first of 13 spending measures Congress sends the president each year. Clinton will act next on the defense-spending bill, probably sometime next week. He has five days after signing a tax or spending bill to delete an item.

So far, the biggest change the line-item veto makes in executive-legislative relations is to add an "overtime" period after the president vetoes an item. But the president always wins the coin toss and gets the ball first. He can block provisions he doesn't like, force public negotiations for change, and take credit for "fiscal responsibility."

"The president is seen as being even more in control of the budget process and priorities," writes Stan Collender, a budget expert and commentator for the National Journal's Cloakroom page on the World Wide Web.

Cutting losses

Reaction to this week's vetoes is mixed. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, an important presidential ally on Capitol Hill, saw Clinton veto a $5.2 million Air National Guard facility in Rapid City, S.D.

"I can't argue with the criteria [Clinton used to strike out projects]. I have to accept the consequences like everybody else," Senator Daschle says. "That doesn't mean I'll accept the consequences in the long term, only because I believe in this project, and I think ultimately I can convince the president and the administration" to fund it.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, on the other hand, protests that Clinton violated this year's budget agreement, which gave the committee money to fund the military-construction projects. The committee simply took projects the Pentagon was planning to build and accelerated their construction schedules. "This was not what the line-item veto was designed to cover. These were not pork projects," he says.

Daschle's project, like most that drew a veto, is on the Pentagon's long-term planning list. But it failed to pass muster because its design work was not complete - one of Clinton's three criteria. The others were absence of the project from the president's original budget request, and failure to provide "substantial contribution" to improving the lives of American troops. By using such criteria, Clinton somewhat protects himself against charges that the vetoes were politically motivated.

The difficulty of directly confronting the president may make negotiation the most practical option for lawmakers. A head-on challenge to the veto's constitutionality, for example, requires an injured party. Earlier this year a group of senators persuaded a federal judge the line-item veto was unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court ruled the senators had no legal standing to sue.

Congress could also try to override a line-item veto, but that's a complicated two-step process. First, the Senate and House must each vote to disapprove a specific line-item veto. Then, the president can veto that entire bill, as the Constitution permits him to do. Both houses then need a two-thirds majority to override him.

Senator Stevens says he will review the 38 deleted projects and try to move a bill disapproving the line-item veto of some of them. But he admits he has no guarantee of success unless he can get Clinton to change his mind.

Pattern of negotiation

That comes back to negotiation. "We're willing to sit down with the White House and work on those areas where we disagree," says Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana, chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction. "Let's see if rational men and women can't ... work this out."

That's what happened after Clinton's first line-item veto in August of three small provisions in the balanced-budget package. Interested parties negotiated with the administration to restore at least some of the provisions. Gov. George Pataki (R) of New York is still working with US Health and Human Services officials to allow some New York-specific Medicaid provisions that the president struck down. Elsewhere, supporters of two arcane tax breaks the president killed are negotiating changes.

However the differences are resolved, congressional-White House sparring over the line-item veto may be a short-lived phenomenon. The law provides that any savings produced by line-item vetoes must be devoted to reducing the federal deficit. Because projections now indicate that the budget may hit a surplus well before the target date of 2002, the line-item veto could fade away along with all the red ink.

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