WASHINGTON – Congress is moving to give President Bush and his successors greater power to try to weed bills of certain spending, though the new power would pale compared with the line-item veto law struck down by the Supreme Court in 1998.
The House Budget Committee on Wednesday approved by a 24-9 vote a bill to allow the president to single out wasteful items contained in appropriations bills he signs into law, and it would require Congress to vote on those items again.
The idea is that wasteful "pork barrel" spending would be vulnerable since Congress might vote to reject such items once they are no longer protected by their inclusion in bigger bills that the president has little choice but to sign.
This is a far weaker version of the line-item veto that Republicans in Congress gave President Clinton in 1996. That bill allowed Clinton to strike items from appropriations and tax bills unless Congress mustered a two-thirds margin to override him. The bill was found unconstitutional since it allowed the president to amend laws passed by Congress.
Most members of Congress simply said good riddance. Clinton's use of the line-item veto against a military projects bill had provoked howls of outrage on Capitol Hill and Congress promptly overrode them.
But Bush in March proposed the new, watered-down version in concert with conservatives such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sponsor of Wednesday's bill.
"Even if the president identifies numerous pork-barrel projects ... he is unlikely to use his veto power because it must be applied to the bill as a whole and cannot be used to target individual items," said Ryan. "Does he veto an entire spending bill because of a few items of pork when this action may jeopardize funding for our troops, for our homeland security or for the education of our children?"
Ryan made several changes to the measure in a bid to ease criticism from Democrats and others who said the original version was tilted too far in the president's favor.
The new plan modified the Bush proposal to ensure he could not paper Congress with spending-cut proposals and require repeated votes on the same item. The new power would expire after a six-year trial. But Ryan also narrowed the measure's application against special interest tax breaks so that, as a practical matter, few such provisions could be targeted by the president.
"It is so watered down that it is not a line-item veto," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
Nonetheless, Cooper was one of the four Democrats on the panel to support the bill. Others such as top panel Democrat John Spratt Jr. of South Carolina opposed the bill despite supporting similar measures in the 1990s that were weaker alternatives to the line-item veto.
Meanwhile, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., unveiled a broader budget overhaul plan. In addition to a similar mechanism to require revotes on projects deemed wasteful by the president, the bill would revive the old Gramm-Rudman mechanism of setting hard deficit targets and requiring across-the-board cuts if they are not met. The measure sets a target of a reducing the deficit to .5 percent of the size of the economy within six years.
"It will lead to a balanced budget for sure by 2012," Gregg said.
Unlike the Gramm-Rudman law, the across-the-board cuts would apply not just to programs passed by Congress each year but also to benefit programs such as Medicare, welfare and unemployment insurance.
Gregg's proposal, which is likely to clear the Budget Committee but stall thereafter, would also put Congress on a two-year budget cycle and establish a commission to make recommendations to keep Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid solvent.
"The Republican majority simply has no credibility when it comes to our nation's budget. Under their watch, record surpluses have turned into record deficits," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "A Republican effort to change budget process rules now is like having the foxes change how they guard the chickens."