WASHINGTON – President Bush would receive greater power to try to kill "pork barrel" spending projects under a bill passed Thursday by the House.
Lawmakers voted to give Bush and his successor a new, weaker version of the line-item veto law struck down by the Supreme Court in 1998, despite a recent series of lopsided votes in which they've rallied to preserve each other's back-home projects. It would expire after six years.
The idea advances amid increasing public concern about lawmakers' penchant for stuffing parochial projects into spending bills that the president must accept or reject in their entirety.
The House passed the bill by a 247-172 vote. Thirty-five Democrats joined with most Republicans in voting for the bill; 15 Republicans opposed the measure and others voted for the bill despite private reservations.
The measure must still pass the Senate, and that's by no means a certainty.
The bill would allow the president to single out items contained in appropriations bills he signs into law, and it would require Congress to vote on those items again. It also could be used against increases in benefit programs and tax breaks aimed at a single beneficiary.
Under the proposal, it would take a simple majority in both the House and the Senate to approve the items over the president's objections.
The hope is that wasteful spending or special interest tax breaks 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 legislation would give the president and Congress an important tool to reduce unjustified earmarks and wasteful spending items that are frequently incorporated into large, essential spending measures," said a White House statement.
Supporters said another result would be that lawmakers would think twice before slipping poorly conceived projects into spending bills.
"The success of this bill will be less in the amount of pork that we line-item veto out and more in how much pork never gets put into the legislation in the first place," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The bill 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 Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional two years later because it let the president single-handedly change laws passed by Congress.
It's not clear that the new spending control tool would be very effective. Congress easily mustered the two-thirds margins needed to override Clinton's 1997 vetoes of military construction projects. More recently, lawmakers have united to reject attacks by a lone conservative, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to strip from spending bills the very kind of projects the new line-item veto is aimed at attacking.
Still, the plan is eagerly embraced by Republicans and their core conservative political supporters and is a way to demonstrate election-year resolve on spending.
For their part, Democrats acidly noted that the vote took place the same day the House was to vote on a 10-year, $283 billion partial repeal of estate taxes on the heirs of millionaires. And the number of pet projects slipped by lawmakers into spending bills has exploded under GOP control of Congress.
"You control all mechanisms of spending. You control the House, you control the Senate, you control the presidency and you need help before you spend again," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. "What is this, Comedy Central?"
But Miller and scores of other Democrats opposing the bill Thursday in fact voted for almost identical legislation in the 1990s when it was proposed as a milder alternative to other line-item veto bills.
Democrats offered but were denied a vote on an alternative that, among other provisions, would have reinstated lapsed pay-as-you-go rules that require tax cuts or additions to federal benefit programs be accompanied by revenue increases or spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
They also said presidents could easily abuse the power to pick on their political enemies or threaten lawmakers' projects as a club to influence them on other legislation.
The Senate plans to press ahead with a far more sweeping plan to overhaul the government's arcane budget process. On Tuesday, the Senate Budget Committee approved a plan to revive the old Gramm-Rudman mechanism of setting hard deficit targets and requiring across-the-board cuts if Congress can't meet them on its own.
The Senate plan also contains the new, watered down line-item veto, and it is expected to bog down quickly when brought to the floor. But so far, Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is resisting the idea of subsequently advancing the line-item veto plan on its own.
Rob Portman, the White House budget director, said the House vote should help prod the Senate, where 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, D-Mass., is a co-sponsor.
"With the combination of Sen. John Kerry supporting it and a number of House Democrats, it gives us better prospects for passage in the Senate," Portman said.