WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives celebrated Ronald Reagan's 84th birthday last night with passage of a line-item veto bill, a major goal of the former president when he was in office.
With a strong bipartisan majority of 294-134, the House approved and sent to the Senate the presidential tool that could remove single parts of budget legislation without rejecting the entire measure. It was one of several procedural changes promised by the Republicans' "Contract with America" as part of their drive to curb federal spending.
"This is a very historic evening for those who think this city always has to be partisan," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a rare appearance on the House floor. "Here we have a Republican majority giving a Democratic president, this year, increased power over spending. . . . It will allow the president to cut out some of the worst of the spending and to indicate where the president stands."
Supporters argued that the change would allow the president to excise wasteful special-interest and pork-barrel spending from appropriations measures he otherwise supports. The measure would not apply to automatic spending programs, or entitlements, such as Medicare and welfare programs. But special-interest tax breaks would be affected.
Opponents warned that surrendering such sweeping power to the executive branch ran counter to the tradition of American democracy.
"This makes it possible for a president to change a law on his own after it has been signed," argued Rep. Cardiss Collins, an Illinois Democrat. "The framers gave Congress the exclusive power to act as a check on the president. If we give that power away, we will never, ever get it back again."
Last night's vote was timed to fall on the birthday of Mr. Reagan, as a tribute to the ailing former president, who crusaded for the line-item veto until his final State of the Union address in 1988.
Like his predecessors, President Clinton also supports line-item veto power.
Six of the eight Maryland representatives supported the measure. They were Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st District; Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-2nd; Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd; Albert R. Wynn, D-4th; Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-6th; and Constance A. Morella, R-8th. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, and Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, opposed the bill.
"I can't imagine a more appropriate birthday president . . . or one that is so desired and so deserved," said Rep. Jim Bunn of Oregon, one of many Republican freshmen who regard Mr. Reagan as the founding spirit of their anti-government, austerity movement.
Following the bill's passage, Republicans went to a large meeting room to slice a cake commemorating Mr. Reagan's birthday and later joined a dinner honoring him. Mr. Reagan, who recently announced that he has Alzheimer's disease, planned to watch the dinner gathering and speeches over the C-Span cable network.
The line-item veto was the third piece of House legislation from the "Contract with America." A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and a bill making it harder for Congress to impose expensive laws on states and cities passed earlier.
But like the balanced budget amendment, the line-item measure is heading for trouble in the Senate, where both Republicans and Democrats are reluctant to give any president such broad new powers. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee, is leading a drive to substitute the House-passed proposal with a weaker alternative. is expected to pick up support from Democrats but to lose conservative Republicans.
Technically, the House bill does not provide a pure line-item veto similar to the power granted to governors of 43 states, including Maryland. A pure line-item veto would replace the current system, which gives the president a take-it-or-leave-it choice of signing or vetoing an entire bill. He could then sign into law only the parts of a bill he liked.
A constitutional amendment would be required to make that great a change in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Supporters of the proposal don't believe they could garner the two-thirds vote of the House and Senate for an amendment.
Instead, the bill passed by the House sets up a process that many legislators say would be even stronger than a pure line-item veto.
The measure allows the president to sign a spending bill or tax bill into law and then propose to Congress a "rescission" measure to strike the portions he opposes. Those rescissions would take effect unless Congress passed a bill to reverse them, which would also be subject to a veto. Congress would have to muster a two-thirds vote to override that veto. Critics warn that a president with the support of only a third of Congress could block any program or even legislative language written into bills.
But supporters like Rep. Bill Baker, a California Republican, say it would give the president "the power to search out and destroy wasteful spending before it starts."
Senator Domenici and many House members believe this provision would grant the president such sweeping new power that the Supreme Court might find it unconstitutional. The senator has proposed an alternative that would force Congress to vote on presidential rescissions, which the lawmakers can now ignore. But a majority vote would be required for those rescissions to stand.
But the House yesterday rejected a proposal similar to the Domenici approach.
"I rise in opposition to anything that would complicate or weaken the line-item veto that we proposed here today," said Rep. Mark W. Neumann, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin. "As we look the debt facing our nation today, it's time we actually did something about it."
Democratic critics of the line-item veto argue that it is gimmick that would achieve little to cut spending.
"This is not a panacea for the deficit," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon. "We have to make tough decisions in this body if we are to get the deficit under control."
But opponents of the measure focused on amendments designed to exempt popular spending programs from presidential veto.
"Our nation's budget problems are not caused by spending on highways, mass transportation and airports," said Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the No. 2 House Democrat, who argued in vain to exempt public-works projects.
Legislation that would apply to Congress the labor and safety requirements imposed on private business, another part of the "Contract with America," has already been enacted and signed into law by Mr. Clinton.