A bipartisan coalition led by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole agreed, by a margin of 69 to 31, to grant the president a "line-item veto" -- the right to strike individual items from a spending bill without rejecting the entire bill.
Approval in the House is expected today or tomorrow,, and President Clinton is considered certain to sign the bill into law. It would take effect next January.
Supporters of the bill, frustrated by years of failed efforts to erase the federal budget deficit, say they hope the tool would help trim some of the questionable "pork barrel projects" that tend to lard up larger spending measures.
"No one is pretending it is one big answer to all of our budget problems," Mr. Dole said. "But it is one additional tool a president can use to help keep unnecessary spending down."
But opponents, who included Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, warned their colleagues that they were being foolish and short-sighted in giving away so much authority.
Some also argued that the measure would be challenged in court as an unconstitutional conflict of interest: For example, the president, as head of the executive branch that is often a party in federal court cases, would be exercising power over the budget of the judiciary.
Shifting the balance of power
"This is the greatest effort to shift the balance of power to the White House since Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court," said Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, an Oregon Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee.
"I'm appalled that my colleagues on the Republican side should be leading the effort."
The measure would apply to regular appropriations, automatic spending programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, and to targeted tax breaks that apply to fewer than 100 people.
Politicians and presidents have been seeking some version of the line-item veto for more than a century. Governors in most states have such authority, but the U.S. Constitution prohibits the president from picking and choosing among spending proposals.
"The president can no longer say, 'I didn't like having to spend on that wasteful project, but it was part of a larger bill I just couldn't say no to,' " said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has been among the measure's chief advocates. "Under a line-item veto, no one can hide."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is among the most resistant to yielding congressional power, charged, however, that presidents would use the line-item veto as a club.
"This will be used by a president to threaten and coerce and intimidate members of the legislative branch to give the president what he wants, or he will veto the projects that our constituents need and want," Mr. Byrd said.
Congress, Mr. Byrd warned, was "on the verge of making a colossal mistake."
But Allen Schick, a scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution who specializes in the federal budget, suggested that both sides were making exaggerated claims about the measure's potential consequences.
"It's not going to complete the job of balancing the budget," Mr. Schick said.
"This has more to do with who runs Washington than how big Washington is."
Mr. Schick said he believes that Congress would find its own ways to counter a president who abused the line-item veto to extract support for other measures.
"But it's a lousy idea to allow a president to sign a law and then cancel parts of it," he added.
A drive to amend the constitution to allow for the line-item veto picked up steam during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who made it a top priority. But the proposal never got anywhere in the Democratic-run Congress, where a two-thirds vote of each house was required to send a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification.
Authors of the current bill say they believe they have structured the veto procedure in a way that does not violate the Constitution.
Under their new procedure, the president would sign a spending bill into law but would notify Congress of individual items he wants to cancel. Congress would have 30 days to pass a bill disapproving a cancellation. The president could then veto that bill, which would require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress to override.
The line-item veto got a big political boost when it was included in the House Republicans' "Contract with America," the 1994 campaign manifesto that they turned into a blueprint for governing.
But it has been stalled for nearly a year after the House and Senate passed two different versions of the proposal.
The deadlock was broken only when Mr. Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told his Senate colleagues that he needed them to reach an agreement so he could claim passage of the proposal as a political achievement.
Even so, the willingness of senators to back the measure also "shows the depth of our frustration at our inability to get a handle on spending and curb the insatiable appetite of those who want to use the spending process" for their favorite projects, said Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican.
Pub Date: 3/28/96