WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a presidential line-item veto bill Thursday night that would significantly expand the powers of the presidency--at the expense of Congress.
The bill, a version of which has already been approved by the House, would enable a President to delete specific lines from appropriations measures or kill certain tax breaks--a new authority widely championed as a potent White House weapon against pork-barrel spending by profligate lawmakers. The veto could be overridden, however, by a two-thirds vote of Congress.
The line-item veto was a top priority of the "contract with America," the House GOP campaign manifesto that has been driving the Republican legislative agenda all year. Such authority, however, has been coveted by White House occupants going back at least to Ulysses S. Grant.
Senate passage, by a vote of 69 to 29, came despite considerable skepticism among many Democrats, who were wary about granting the unprecedented authority to a President, even one from their own party. At the same time, some Republicans were nearly as uneasy, painfully aware of the irony of a GOP-controlled Congress rushing to expand the powers of a Democratic President.
But, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) explained in an interview, ". . . we expect to have a Republican President (in 1997)."
President Clinton greeted the vote with a plea for swift action. "I hope the House and Senate will now get together quickly to resolve their differences and pass the strongest possible bill," Clinton said. "The sooner such a bill reaches my desk, the sooner I can take further steps to cut the (federal budget) deficit."
The surprisingly large vote margin was to some extent a result of the rancor that continues to permeate the Senate in the wake of its March 2 vote killing the proposed balanced-budget constitutional amendment, another GOP priority.
"I think that made Republicans even more determined--and made Democrats more willing to vote for this and overlook some of the messiness," said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a critic of the bill, referring to senators' desire to be seen as fiscally responsible.
"The American people are sick and tired of business as usual," said Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), a longtime supporter of the line-item veto and floor manager of the Senate version of the bill. The measure, he said, will restore some voter confidence in lawmakers after the Senate rejection of the balanced-budget amendment.
In the wake of the balanced-budget amendment's defeat, the line-item veto debate was cast almost entirely in terms of deficit reduction. The significance of the shift of power from Capitol Hill to the White House might well have been lost but for the stirring oration of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), a noted guardian of congressional prerogatives.
For many hours this week, and especially on Thursday, Byrd, 77, inveighed against the line-item veto. Shortly before the final vote, he quoted from a Henry Clay speech of 153 years ago in which the Kentucky senator warned against any presidential veto authority.
The Republican-dominated House passed its line-item veto bill, 294 to 134, on Feb. 6--the birthday of former President Ronald Reagan, a champion of the initiative. Differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation must now be worked out by a conference committee.
At present, a President may only propose to rescind specific spending items in appropriations bills. But such proposals do not take effect unless Congress votes to approve them. Governors of 43 states have the line-item veto power, but the Constitution denies it to presidents.
To get around that prohibition, the Senate bill provides for breaking up spending bills, measures that create or expand entitlements or legislation providing targeted tax breaks into many mini-bills, each containing a specific line of individual outlay.
The President would either sign or veto each "line item." And, as with any legislation, it would take a two-thirds vote by both houses to override his action.
By contrast, the House version of the bill puts a presidential proposal to rescind spending into effect unless Congress passes legislation to block it within 20 days. As in the Senate bill, a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate would be required to block a President's spending cut.
Byrd said the Senate approach would create a "logistical nightmare" with "hundreds of little orphan bills" requiring the President's signature.
But McCain said the process, known in legislative jargon as "separate enrollment," can easily be solved with computers, calling the task "a mechanical problem that will somehow result in a mechanical solution."
Logistics aside, however, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) warned that the bill may be held unconstitutional by the courts.
To avoid a filibuster attempt by the Democrats, Senate GOP leaders earlier this week agreed to several amendments, including one that would preclude lawmakers from attaching appropriations for pet projects to emergency spending measures and another that would make it clearer that the President can veto tax measures that benefit only small groups.