WASHINGTON – President Bush's request for broad, and constitutionally questionable, authority to control spending by vetoing specific items in larger bills is drawing limited interest in Congress.
Even though he has yet to issue a single veto in his five years in office, Bush asked Congress in his State of the Union address to give him line-item veto power. He said it and a movement to curb lawmakers' appetite for special projects, or earmarks, would provide a one-two punch in reducing government spending.
"We can tackle this problem together, if you pass the line-item veto," he said.
White House budget director Joshua Bolten said the two approaches "go very much hand-in-hand" in weeding out thousands of narrowly targeted projects that lawmakers secure by sticking them in larger, must-pass spending bills.
Bush is the latest in a long line of presidents, both Republican and Democrat, to seek the power to eliminate a single item in a spending or tax bill without killing the entire measure.
President Clinton got that wish in 1996, when the new reform-minded Republican majority in the House helped pass a line-item veto law. Clinton used that power 82 times in 1997, and even with Congress overriding his veto 38 times, it saved the government almost $2 billion.
But in 1998 the Supreme Court declared by 6-3 that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the principle that Congress, and not the executive branch, holds the power of the purse.
That argument is shared by many lawmakers reluctant to cede more power, particularly to an administration they see as not always treating Congress as an equal partner.
"I am not prepared to give the president of the United States an absolute line-item veto, because I think every member of Congress will then be compromised of any kind of independence that they would like to exercise," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House's second-ranking Democrat.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a budget watchdog group and longtime advocate of the line-item veto, said the chances for action this year have improved because the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has given Congress an incentive to change how it does business.
But Schatz said ethics and earmark legislation must be addressed first, and movement on those issues has already been slowed by differences within and between the parties. Action, he said, "depends on how hard the White House pushes."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., supports giving the president line-item veto authority but has not scheduled hearings on the issue.
Any such hearing would focus on the various approaches to resolving the Supreme Court's constitutional challenge to the previous law.
Reps. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., have a bill under which the president would send to Congress, in the form of legislation, a list of projects he believes should not be funded.
Congress would then be required to vote within 15 days, by a simple majority rather than the two-thirds needed to override a veto, on whether to keep the project alive.
It "allows the president to shine the light of day on specific item in federal spending," Musgrave said. "The climate is right for it."
Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., has proposed a constitutional amendment to give the president clear line-item veto authority over spending items, saying this was the best way to rein in spending.
"We need for the president, whether a Republican or a Democrat, to have the ability to cut out the junk, hold Congress accountable and keep spending under control," Kennedy said.