KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — President Bush on Friday signed into a law a measure governing State Department programs for the next two years, but said he would not consider himself bound by several provisions that White House lawyers claim infringe on presidential powers.
The move was significant as part of a continuing campaign by Bush to bolster presidential privileges that he contends have been eroded in recent years.
But Bush's action stopped well short of asserting a so-called line-item veto over legislation--the power to nullify certain parts of a congressionally passed measure while signing the rest. Administration officials have said Bush is looking for a bill that he could use as a test case on a line-item veto.
Instead of anything that drastic, in this case Bush issued a three-page statement late in the day here after he arrived for a three-day vacation. The statement said the President simply would interpret the provisions he objected to as "advisory," not binding. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter took similar stands in similar circumstances and Bush as well has issued similar statements in the past.
The law in question is tailor-made for these sorts of disputes about the relative powers of the executive and legislative branches because a quarrel over it would have few practical consequences. The bill is what is known as an authorization measure, a law that sets ground rules for certain programs, in this case nearly $10 billion of State Department programs this year and next.
But the way the government is set up, those programs would continue in effect whether the authorization were in place or not. By contrast, disputes over appropriations measures--the laws which actually provide money for programs--can cause serious disruptions because the government is not allowed to spend money if an appropriation has not been signed.
Because of that difference, Congress and the executive branch both usually try to avoid fights over appropriations bills while using authorizations to make political statements.
In this case, for example, one provision of the bill prohibits U.S. representatives from conducting Middle East peace negotiations with any representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization who has "directly participated" in a "terrorist activity which resulted in the death or kidnaping of a United States citizen."
Voting for that provision had an obvious political advantage for members of Congress who proposed it, allowing them to say they had taken a stand against terrorism.
Bush, however, takes the position that the Constitution gives the President the sole right to decide whom to negotiate with. In Friday's statement, he said that while he does not plan to negotiate with terrorists, he would not be constrained by Congress telling him not to.
The bill also includes two provisions relating to China. One enacts into law sanctions on China that Bush already has imposed by executive order. In a compromise worked out earlier, the bill gives Bush flexibility to waive the sanctions when he sees fit.
The second provision, aimed at last year's "secret mission" of Administration officials to Beijing, would require the State Department to notify Congress of such trips in the future. But the bill does not impose a specific deadline for making such reports. In his statement, Bush said he was "concerned that such provisions tend to undermine the spirit of cooperation and trust between the executive and legislative branches."