WASHINGTON -- Needing to shore up conservative support, President Bush is widely expected to provoke an election-year court test of the theory that he possesses line-item veto power, the ability to delete individual items from spending bills, sources said yesterday.
After the Senate refused, 54-44, to approve legislation that would have granted the president that authority, a White House official said it was "almost inevitable" that Mr. Bush would seize the earliest opportunity to try to show that he already has such power.
In fact, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said White House aides had told him that Mr. Bush likely would take the next appropriations bill that comes to him and blue-pencil specific projects in it while approving everything else.
The action undoubtedly would prompt a swift lawsuit asserting that the Constitution permits presidents to veto only entire measures.
Senator McCain said that the unprecedented constitutional confrontation would bolster Mr. Bush's battle against his conservative GOP presidential challenger, Patrick J. Buchanan, by demonstrating that he is strongly committed to obtaining the line-item veto power.
Last month, Mr. Bush renewed his plea to Congress for a line-item veto, saying it was needed to block such "pork-barrel appropriations" as a Lawrence Welk museum and a research grant for Belgian endive.
But while a court test could win over conservatives and other voters upset by wasteful spending, it also carries the risk of being viewed as a cynical political ploy if it flops in the courts, several skeptical administration officials and congressional Republicans said.
Mr. Bush's own attorney general, William P. Barr, has declared that he believes the president has no inherent line-item veto power.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last year, Mr. Barr dismissed the interpretation of some scholars that the Constitution provides the president with such authority.
"I looked at that issue, and I looked at it hard and spent a lot of time having people research it," Mr. Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "In fact, we went back to ancient English and Scottish constitutions and precedents and so forth. I found no basis for an inherent line-item veto in the Constitution."
Nevertheless, sources said that White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray has led "an aggressive and intense effort" in recent weeks to develop a legal foundation and tactical plan for provoking a court test.