While Capitol 'Mice' Are Away, Will Clinton Play?

With Congress afield, president toys with a 'recess appointment' and the line-item veto.

Just because Congress is out of town doesn't mean President Clinton and Hill Republicans stop sparring.

Even from far afield, GOP lawmakers on recess feel compelled to keep one watchful eye on Mr. Clinton - wondering which of the wrenches in his toolbox of presidential privileges he may tighten while they're away.

One of these, the president's ability to fill vacant posts while Congress is out of session, is of particular concern to some lawmakers. Clinton is considering evading a Senate roadblock by making a recess appointment of controversial nominee Bill Lann Lee to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.

But the president also has a new tool called the line-item veto - one handed to him by Congress itself. And since lawmakers left town two weeks ago, Clinton has continued to practice using it.

Clinton brandished the veto most recently on Tuesday, when he trimmed $5 million from a spending bill for the Commerce, Justice, and State departments. His veto ax has felled a variety of projects - from a Montana State University research effort on environmentally friendly buildings to a dam that would create a recreational lake on public land in Mississippi.

Many Republicans have been irritated by Clinton's use of the line-item veto, even though they included it in their 1994 Contract With America. They were particularly incensed by his October veto of 38 military construction projects worth $287 million. Many of the projects were on the Pentagon's five-year construction list; the White House later acknowledged that several got vetoed by mistake.

IN the aftermath of that controversy, and probably anxious not to anger congressmen whose support he needed for his "fast track" trade proposal, Clinton has moved more cautiously on amending Congress's spending bills. His trims range from $144 million on defense spending to $1.9 million on Agriculture Department programs. He also nixed a plan to allow longtime federal workers to change pension plans, which would have cost $854 million over five years.

While the vetoes have upset many, Congress has overturned none of them. Supporters of the vetoed military construction projects, however, predict an override when Congress returns next year.

Despite concerns by many that the line-item veto gives away too much congressional power to the executive branch, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says it has worked well so far. "Overall, it will wind up saving the taxpayers some money. I think that's good," he says.

Senator Lott and his fellow Republicans are less sanguine about suggestions the president will appoint Mr. Lee in their absence. They left the capital thinking they had killed his nomination, which they oppose on grounds that Lee's support for affirmative-action programs would interfere with his ability to enforce recent laws and court decisions that forbid them. Democrats blocked a Senate Judiciary Committee vote after it became clear Lee would lose.

Many Democrats and some in the White House are urging a recess appointment, arguing that the president needs to stand up to the GOP-controlled Senate. "I think it's more likely that he'll get things done if he says, 'I'm the president and I've got power, and I'm going to exercise that power,' " Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska said at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.

But recess appointments are usually reserved for noncontroversial nominations. Senate Republicans all but threaten retaliation against other presidential nominees if Clinton goes around them.

"I need respect and cooperation from the administration during the recess period if they expect to have my respect and cooperation after the first of the year," Lott says. "So I would not expect them to give [a] recess appointment to Lee.... It would really poison the well for next year."

In The Absence Of Congress

The Constitution gives the president temporary powers during a recess. He can:

* Call Congress back into session "on extraordinary occasions."

* "Pocket veto" bills by not signing them within 10 days after adjournment, a veto Congress cannot override.

* Make "recess appointments," which do not require Senate confirmation and are valid until the end of the next session.

Congress has granted the president power to veto line items in spending bills. If a veto comes during a recess, lawmakers can't challenge it for weeks or months.

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