The Republican-controlled House sought Wednesday to give President Barack Obama and his successors the line-item veto, a constitutionally questionable power over the purse that has been sought by Republican and Democrats alike.
The legislation, expected to pass, would allow a president to pick out specific items in spending bills for elimination. Currently, the chief executive must sign or veto spending bills in their entirety. The president's choices for removal would then have to be approved by Congress.
Congress has made several attempts in the past to enact line-item veto bills, saying that surgical cuts to spending bills are useful both in removing wasteful earmarks and in reducing spending. Most state governors have some kind of line-item veto power.
The House bill, offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the top Democrat on the committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, stipulates that all savings from eliminated programs would go to deficit reduction. House Republicans have included the bill as part of a package of measures to overhaul the budget process so as to save money.
In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress succeeded in giving line-item veto authority to another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. He exercised that authority 82 times, and although Congress overrode his veto on 38 instances, the moves saved the government almost $2 billion.
But in 1998, on a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, saying it violated the principle that Congress, and not the executive branch, holds the power of the purse.
Supporters say the bill has been written to meet constitutional standards. They say that while the president can propose items for rescission, or elimination, Congress must then vote on the revised spending package and then the president must sign what is in effect a new bill.
Support for the bill appeared to be broad despite the usual acrimony between congressional Republicans and the president.
"I'm not thrilled about involving this president in budgeting decisions any more than is absolutely necessary," said freshman Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. "But given the nature of our challenges, it's not about this president or the previous president or the next president, it's about the American people."
"We know that this body has been unable to produce cleaner, leaner spending bills, and I think it can be a constructive step to enlist the help of the president of the United States in removing unnecessary and indefensible pork from spending bills," said Democrat Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado.
Under the proposal, the president has 45 days within the enactment of a spending bill to send a special message to Congress proposing cuts to any amount of discretionary, or non-entitlement, spending. Legislation to consider the proposed cuts would move quickly to the House and Senate floors for automatic up-or-down votes with no amendments.
The White House, in a statement, said it "strongly supports" passage of the bill, praising it for "helping to eliminate unnecessary spending and discouraging waste." It said the bill was similar to a line-item veto proposal that Obama sent to Congress in May, 2010.
One top Democrat, minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, voiced opposition, saying that while he had supported line-item veto bills in the past, he thought the bill was too restrictive in requiring that money saved from a rescission go to deficit reduction and could not be used to fund other priorities.
The bill, if it passes the House, faces an unclear road ahead in the Senate. Four senators — Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coats of Indiana and Democrats Tom Carper of Delaware and Mark Udall of Colorado — pushed to have a line-item veto provision considered by the supercommittee which last year was unable to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit.
But the Senate, traditionally more protective of its constitutional powers, has not always been receptive to the line-item veto idea. In 2007 former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., picked up 49 votes for a line-item proposal, well short of the 60 needed to break a Democratic-led filibuster.
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