WASHINGTON — President Clinton pulled back from a potentially corrosive fight with Congress on Tuesday, using his new line-item veto power to trim only $140 million from the $247.7-billion defense appropriation bill. But in the process he wrote the final chapter for the storied SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane.
Congress had added 750 items, costing about $11 billion, to Clinton's original budget proposal, and Clinton vetoed only 13 of them. The appropriation bill, providing money for everything from military pay to high-technology weapons, included more than 5,000 line items.
At a news conference in Brazil, where he was continuing a tour of South America, Clinton said that his vetoes are "responsible and quite restrained." Aides said that he deferred to Congress on any item which appeared to be a "close call."
Congressional aides expressed surprise that Clinton had not vetoed more from the big appropriation bill, which was loaded with potential targets.
"We feel it's a modest list," said a Republican aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It doesn't have the wide swath and bizarre logic that was behind the line-item vetoes of the [$9.2 billion] military construction bill. Last week, Clinton vetoed 38 items worth $287 million from that much smaller spending bill. His action brought a howl of protest from Capitol Hill, especially from Republicans who said that the extensive cuts represented an abuse of presidential power. Lawmakers said that another veto fight could threaten Clinton's request for "fast track" trade negotiating authority.
"I think that members did a good job last week of pointing out to the president that the line-item veto must be used very carefully," the GOP aide said.
Clinton took advantage of the new law, however, to do something that the Pentagon has wanted to do since 1989: ground the SR-71, the high-altitude strategic reconnaissance plane capable of flying three times the speed of sound. Although the Blackbird, first flown in 1964, was the technological wonder of its day, its primary purpose of keeping overhead watch on potential enemies was long ago taken over by satellites.
The aircraft was manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. at a plant in Southern California.
"There is no military requirement to continue to operate the SR-71," the administration said in explaining the veto of $39 million appropriated to pay for manning, operation, training and some equipment modifications to keep the program alive and to give the Pentagon an unrequested capability to return the Blackbird to active service on 30 days' notice. Congress has voted similar appropriations every year of this decade to keep the plane in the inventory, despite the Pentagon's efforts to kill it.
Left off the list of vetoes is $720 million that Congress added to the bill for an Aegis destroyer to be built in Pascagoula, Miss., hometown of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Clinton also left in money to pay for eight C-130J transport planes built in Marietta, Ga., in the district of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
As expected, there were complaints from lawmakers who lost projects in their districts.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) was furious at Clinton's decision to veto $4 million for Loma Linda University Medical Center in his district for developing an advanced form of radiation treatment for breast cancer.
Lewis said that the veto may make him less inclined to help Clinton gin up support among California Republicans for his agenda in Congress, specifically his request for "fast track" trade negotiating authority.
"Next week he's going to come to people like me and say: 'Help me with fast track,' " Lewis said. "This causes me to say: 'Wait a minute, friend.' "
The line-item veto, enjoyed by most state governors, is a longtime Republican priority, advocated by President Reagan as a brake on spending by the Democratic-controlled Congress. Included in the GOP "contract with America" campaign manifesto in 1994, the measure was enacted last year and took effect Jan. 1.
"I know that a lot of members who voted for the line-item veto in Congress now wonder whether they did the right thing, now that I'm exercising it," Clinton said in Brasilia. "But I'd like to remind you that again I have deferred in great measure to Congress."
Clinton said that the threat of the line-item veto should improve the entire budget-making process by showing Congress that it is useless to vote for pork barrel projects that are sure to draw a veto.
"I'm hoping that in the years ahead, I won't be using it as much and future presidents won't use it as much, because it will lead to a different kind of negotiation in the budgeting process," he said.