More power to the pen: Bush urges new veto tool

The White House proposed legislation this week that would give the chief executive a line-item veto.

The presidential line-item veto is back.

As far back as the 1870s, with President Ulysses Grant, America's chief executives have yearned for such a tool - that is, the right to strike out sections of bills they deem objectionable, usually those involving spending.

Today, 43 of 50 governors enjoy that right, as part of many states' constitutional requirement to balance their budgets.

In 1996, Congress made Bill Clinton the first US president to have that power. It ended two years later, when the Supreme Court ruled that, because the Constitution does not expressly allow such action by the president, it forbids it. In short, under the Constitution, the president must either sign a bill in its entirety or not at all.

The Bush White House says it has found a constitutional way around that ruling, and on Monday, sent proposed legislation to Capitol Hill.

The legislation would allow the president to defer spending on items with which he disagrees, while signing the rest of a bill. Congress would then have 10 days to vote up or down on whether to fund the disputed items, without amendment or filibuster. Passage would be by majority, not the two-thirds margin traditionally required to override a veto.

Some legal scholars predict such a technique would pass constitutional muster, because it would give Congress the final word. Others are not sure, because it would allow the president to sign something into law - those elements he is not subjecting to a line-item veto - that is not identical to what both houses of Congress had passed.

"Is it a bill that qualifies in the constitutional sense?" asks Bruce Fein, a constitutional law expert and former Reagan administration official.

The White House argues that this veto tool would shine light on legislators' technique of planting pet projects into legislation. "By passing this version of the line-item veto, the administration will work with the Congress to reduce wasteful spending, reduce the budget deficit, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely," President Bush said on Monday.

Later in the day, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts endorsed the plan, which is similar to one he had proposed in his 2004 presidential campaign. So did Republican leaders, a rare exception to the recent trend of Congress challenging the president's multiple efforts to accrue more power to the executive branch. But top Democrats in both the House and Senate rejected the proposal, arguing it would do little to control spiraling budget deficits.

Some political observers assert that, in proposing a line-item veto now, Bush was responding to criticism he has faced from fiscal conservatives in his own party for allowing federal spending to skyrocket - principally not from pet projects by members of Congress, but by major increases in other spending, such as highway legislation, a new prescription drug benefit, and costly wars.

"Maybe he can put this back on the radar screen as a focus of attention for conservative Republicans," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political report. "But it's a lot harder when your own party controls Congress, and now you're talking about the line-item veto because they can't control themselves or the president can't control them."

In five-plus years in office, Bush has yet to veto one piece of legislation, though he has threatened to more than 100 times.

Today, "the reason for the out-of-control spending is not because we lack some legal [technique] to make it hard," says Mr. Fein. "It's because of the politics that drives members to vote for these things."

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