WASHINGTON -- With wide bipartisan support, the Senate voted yesterday to give the president unprecedented control of the federal purse -- the power to veto specific items in spending bills and some future tax benefits.
The Senate passed the bill 69-29, nearly eight weeks after the House approved a different version of the line-item veto. A central piece of the Republican agenda, the veto is being pushed as a budget-cutting tool.
Before the bill can be sent to President Clinton, who has said he will sign it, differences between the Senate and the House versions must be resolved by a conference committee.
Whatever the shape of the final bill, it could produce a major power shift in Washington and create what even its most ardent supporters concede will be a political Pandora's box by giving the Democratic White House far more potent say over the Republican agenda.
Rarely has the legislative branch willingly shifted power to the executive branch. But with the Senate vote yesterday, Congress agreed to cede to the president, at least temporarily, one of its most jealously guarded rights -- the power of the purse.
It is odd by any standard of politics that a Congress controlled by one party would give such a powerful political tool to a president representing another.
The Republicans appeared to be willing to take that gamble for several reasons, not least of which is that they expect a Republican to be in the White House in 1997.
They also think they stand to gain more than they would lose by co-opting the president in efforts to achieve the deficit reduction they believe the American people want.
Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said last night that Mr. Clinton was "delighted" with the Senate action, "and he looks forward to Congress completing work on a bill that he can sign so we can use the line-item veto and go to work cutting the budget."
The president had sought to stay above the fray in the fight over the measure, but White House aides acknowledged that his statement Monday requesting the strongest possible bill had apparently broken a logjam and weakened Democratic opposition or the risk of a filibuster.
Mr. Clinton met with some Democratic senators at the White House on Wednesday night to review the situation and make sure they were comfortable with the results.
Yesterday's debate found Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia in a familiar role, on his feet for hours lecturing fellow senators. Weeks earlier, the 77-year-old Democrat had led the successful floor fight against the balanced budget amendment -- which ended March 2 in a crushing one-vote defeat for the Republicans.
"It would not matter if I spoke for days, the die is cast," said Mr. Byrd,who concluded his part of the debate by reading the names of the signers of the Constitution. "This bill will go to Congress; what comes of that no one knows."
A line-item veto is part of the House Republicans' political manifesto, the "Contract with America." But for the Republican majorities in both houses who came to power promising to balance the budget and pare down the federal debt, the legislation is also a concession: that after decades of approving bills laden with pork-barrel projects, Congress does not have the restraint to cut spending on its own.
"Whenever Congress knows there is a train going through, it gets loaded up," Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana, one of the Republicans who maneuvered the line-item veto bill through a weeklong debate on the Senate floor, said in an interview.
"Opposition to that sort of thing has been building for at least a decade, and the status quo is no longer accepted."
A line-item veto bill would give the president control over spending that far exceeds the powers spelled out in the Constitution, which gives the chief executive the right to veto only entire bills. That raised concerns among a number of senators.
"We are considering a proposal which, although not drafted as an amendment to the Constitution, nonetheless has important and far-reaching constitutional implications," warned Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who voted against the bill.
"The amendment before us will not impose discipline on Congress, nor will it erase the national debt," the New York Democrat said. "It is very likely unconstitutional and it undoubtedly will be litigated, and the courts will have to decide."
Under the House version of the legislation, the president after signing an appropriations bill could rescind or cancel specific items within 10 days. He could also strike any items in a tax bill that did not affect more than 100 taxpayers.
But the Senate, concerned about the constitutionality of that approach, approved legislation that would break all the provisions in new spending measures into separate bills, which the president could then accept or reject individually.
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, sponsored the Senate version that passed yesterday.
Both versions of the line-item veto allow Congress to override the president, but only with a two-thirds majority vote by both houses. And the Senate version includes a sunset provision that gives the president the line-item veto power for five years.
"We will rewrite a line-item veto bill in five years and it will be the same bill, a stronger bill or a weaker one," Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said in an interview. "It all depends on how this works out."
The legislation faces a much tougher time in the conference committee than it has in either house.
That is because the conflicts involve not only language, but also deep philosophical differences between both houses and the Republicans who command them.
Mr. Domenici warned senators during the debate not to expect "a quick and easy" resolution of the differences. He said budget legislation would probably clear both houses and reach the president's desk before the line-item veto bill was resolved.
At least 200 attempts to pass some form of line-item veto have all failed.
How the line-item veto would work under the bill passed by the Senate:
* After any appropriations bill or authorization measure including new entitlement spending or a new targeted tax benefit passes, it is broken up into smaller bills covering each spending item. Congress then approves the bundle of smaller bills en bloc.
* The president can then carry out his constitutional right to veto any bill coming out of Congress. He has 10 days to use his veto power.
* A two-thirds majority in both houses is needed to override a presidential veto.