If President Clinton wanted to give Republicans an excuse for denying him the line-item veto power enshrined in Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," all he had to do was hold fast to the ineptitude that is the hallmark of his administration. And so he did. For the first veto of his presidency, he chose a measure cutting $16.4 billion from fiscal 1995 spending that he and the old Democratic Congress approved a year ago.
Not only that; his reason for indulging in this highly symbolic action was a relatively small $1.4 billion difference in spending priorities. Mr. Clinton might have held the moral high ground in wanting federal dollars to go to education, job training and national service rather than for highways and courthouses. But if wanted to rekindle Congress' fears about losing institutional leverage in its eternal struggle with the executive branch, he unerringly found the lighted match.
In casting Veto No. 1, the president could not refrain from letting the Republicans have a well-deserved dose of mockery. Noting that the long sought line-item veto would permit the president "to single out special pork projects, veto them and send them back to Congress," he told a Rose Garden gathering: "Now they (Republicans) say they don't think they ought to give it to me this year because I might use it." [Laughter.]
It was a good joke, but even Mr. Clinton may have understood its implications. Because in the next breath, he promised the Republicans he would not use the line-item veto to kill special tax breaks favored by the GOP but would limit himself to spending items. That was more than a prudent caveat. It also was in line with the growing consensus that the line item veto -- an enormous bequest of power to the executive -- is a necessary step toward a balanced budget. Of course, Congress needs to be saved from itself. But there is no need to make its quest for salvation more difficult by reminding even the dimmest legislators what they are being asked to give up.
In casting Veto No. 1, Mr. Clinton predictably picked an issue on which he was sure to prevail. There is no way the Republicans can amass the two-thirds majority required to override. And because the measure contained $6.7 billion in disaster relief for Oklahoma City, California and other places, Republican senators especially will be eager to work out a compromise. After all, they were in the forefront of bipartisan cooperation before things fell apart. The question now is whether the more militant House Republicans will go along.
Either way, the target of the first Clinton veto was small potatoes compared to the huge spending cuts coming down the pike in this year of the Gingrich Revolution. This was just a skirmish, and not a very conclusive one.