The Senate in the next few days has a chance -- just a chance -- to take far more effective action against the exploding national debt than could ever have been achieved under the ill-conceived, ill-fated Balanced Budget Amendment.
If Republicans stop their intramural squabbling and Democrats scrap their adherence to a budget mechanism that has failed, the Senate at last will give presidents the authority to stop pork-barrel spending and special-interest tax breaks.
What is urgently needed is a credible version of what is called a line-item veto. It would enable presidents to reject specific appropriation items and, perhaps, deficit-causing tax breaks instead of having to deal with massive package proposals on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
While most legislators at least give lip service to this objective, big differences persist. House Republicans, as part of their "Contract with America," have passed a bill that would give presidents line-item veto power over appropriations, subject only to a two-thirds override in each chamber. This has the support of a majority of Senate Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
A competing proposal sponsored by Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would allow Congress to vote presidential rescissions up or down by mere majority vote in each house. It is a less draconian shift of power from the legislative to the executive branch and thereby splits not only the Senate Republicans but the conservative faction within the GOP.
Complicating the matter is Democratic pressure for added presidential authority to veto specific items in tax bills. *~ Democrats have leverage because liberals have learned to love the filibuster they hated when the South was solid and segregated.
Into the breach now comes a possible solution offered by Democratic Sens. Ernest Hollings, S.C., and Bill Bradley, N.J. Through a relatively simple change in procedure, it would break up huge omnibus spending and tax bills into separate items, each a statute in itself, that could be accepted or rejected by presidents in normal fashion.
In the past, such proposals have drawn strong Republican support but failed for want of Democratic backing. This time, if GOP legislators find a way to compromise their own differences and accommodate Democratic wishes to tighten presidential control over taxes, we can envisage a measure amalgamating the better features in competing proposals. It might combine separate statutes for each appropriation and each targeted tax break -- a very tough approach -- with presidential line-item veto power in somewhat diluted form as a safeguard against congressional flim-flam.
This opportunity to put procedural and legal brakes on a federal toboggan racing downhill to deficit disaster must not be missed. It could save billions every year and, even more, it could set the stage and the mood for the much bigger budget cuts needed to stop Washington's profligacy.