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Line item veto on the line Up to Supreme Court: Justices wonder if protesting lawmakers have legal standing

ON THE SAME DAY the Supreme Court held that a sitting president can be sued for actions outside the scope of his official duties, it heard arguments on whether a sitting Congress can cede some of its constitutional powers of the purse to the chief executive. At issue is the line-item-veto law passed last year in the first great show of cooperation between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress.

The legislation presents grave constitutional -- and practical -- questions that ought to be settled quickly to avoid complicating spending and tax legislation now under consideration. It permits presidents to kill individual sections of an omnibus spending or special-interest tax bill without rejecting the entire measure, subject only to a veto override by two-thirds majority.

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On April 10, a federal district judge ruled that this "cancellation" procedure was "revolutionary" and contrary to constitutional provisions that "clearly forbid anything but rejection of a bill in toto." The White House appealed, thus setting the stage for a Supreme Court decision every bit as important to the presidency as the court's ruling against Mr. Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit.

Yet in a recent hearing, members of the high tribunal focused most of their inquiries on whether six members of Congress opposed to the line-item-veto law have standing to challenge it in court before it had been activated. The issue is whether they have been injured by the loss of their power to pass laws that can't be changed piecemeal by the executive.

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Despite this possible obstacle to immediate consideration by the Supreme Court, the practical need for early action and pressure to move toward a balanced budget could produce a judicial decision before the tribunal recesses for the summer.

There can be little doubt that the line-item-veto law gives the White House new powers over spending and taxation that presidents have sought since the time of Ulysses S. Grant. Justice David Souter wondered how lawmakers could know what they are voting for. But there also can be little doubt that Congress under the existing all-or-nothing formula for appropriation bills engages in log-rolling, pork-barrel legislating that wastes public money and adds to the national debt.

How the court rules could have a long-range fiscal impact vitally affecting the dynamics of legislating and the balance of power between Congress and the presidency.

Pub Date: 6/07/97


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