- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When President George W. Bush called for a kind of line-item veto four years ago, the top Senate Democrat said it was like getting a “bad sore throat,” and the No. 2 House Democrat called it “a sham.” On Monday, President Obama asked them to reconsider and pass something very similar, for his sake.

With fears of a Greek-style debt collapse roiling a Congress already balking at new spending, the White House on Monday proposed a modified line-item veto that would give the administration another crack at forcing Congress to vote on spending cuts.

But the proposal will have to pass a Congress wary of giving up power over the purse, and would require a reversal by many Democrats who voted against a similar proposal from Mr. Bush.

One who’s already reversed himself is Mr. Obama, who as a senator in 2007 voted along with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., now the vice president, and almost all of the rest of Senate Democrats to filibuster Mr. Bush’s proposal.

The White House said Mr. Obama embraced line-item powers by the time he won the White House, and that times are bad enough that Congress may now be ready to follow his lead.

“The fiscal context has changed as it became necessary to combat a severe economic downturn and as ongoing deficits have become a growing concern,” Peter R. Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director, told reporters. “We are hopeful the Congress will enact this legislation because it will help everyone to reduce unnecessary spending.”

He said the new presidential powers could encourage Congress to scrutinize spending bills more carefully, because lawmakers wouldn’t want to be shamed by having their projects singled out.

Analysts said the enhanced authority wouldn’t have a big impact for a government that will spend close to $4 trillion this year, and suggested the timing is more about providing cover for a potential $200 billion spending and tax-cut-extensions bill Congress will try to pass this week.

“Why are they doing this now? They’re about to put through an extenders bill that’s an enormous embarrassment,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who was later a top adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign and is now president of the American Action Forum.

He said he doubted that Mr. Obama’s proposal would be approved and that early indications from Congress weren’t promising. “Republicans aren’t going to want to hand additional power to Obama just prior to an election, and Democrats don’t want to lose their ability to deliver favors,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who in 2006 said he liked the idea of a line-item veto “about like I like a bad sore throat,” was far from encouraging Monday, saying Congress already has taken some big steps.

He and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, would say only that they will ask their chambers to review the proposal, though neither sounded enthusiastic.

House Rules Committee Chairman Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, was more blunt: “I do not believe that it’s wise for Congress to hand over its constitutionally mandated responsibilities in any situation, but especially not when it comes to appropriations.”

Republicans, who generally supported the 2006 effort by Mr. Bush, said they welcomed any effort by Mr. Obama to control spending, but that he should be using the authority he already has to veto spending bills outright, or to send up packages of cuts under existing rules.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the president could start by repealing the health care bill or end stimulus spending.

“If the president wants to reduce spending, then he needs to do much, much more than this legislation, which I believe is a cynical ploy to try and distract the American people from this administration’s terrible fiscal record,” he said.

Ever since the Supreme Court overturned a line-item veto as unconstitutional in 1998, presidents have sought to come up with ways to achieve the same end while not running afoul of the Constitution.

This new proposal relies on rescission authority that allows the White House, after receiving any spending proposal, to send Congress a bill that calls for specific cuts. Congress would have a set timeline to act on the bill, and it would have to hold an up-or-down vote, avoiding any Senate filibuster.

The amount of cuts is likely to be small, compared with the overall budget. A good indicator of the potential scope is the package of cuts the president submits each year with his proposed budget. That package typically runs between $10 billion and $20 billion, or about half of 1 percent of all federal spending.

Mr. Orszag said their approach answers the constitutional questions and puts pressure on Congress to scrutinize spending ahead of time, knowing that the administration now has a tool to force a debate on specific spending projects.

Mr. Bush released his own line-item proposal in 2006, just as he was beginning to feel the heat from his own party on spending.

His bill passed the House on a 247-172 vote, with 35 Democrats joining all but 15 Republicans in support.

Senate Republicans didn’t bring it to the floor that year, but a year later — after they had lost control of the chamber. They offered the proposal as an amendment to another bill, but it was blocked on the Democratic filibuster.

House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat, said he will take the lead in introducing Mr. Obama’s proposal in Congress, calling it “a step forward on the path to fiscal responsibility.”

Mr. Spratt led opposition to the 2006 Bush proposal. At the time, he said it didn’t include pay-as-you-go rules or earmark transparency, and allowed entitlement spending such as Medicare and Social Security to be subject to rescissions as well. Democrats have since imposed new earmark and pay-go rules, and Mr. Obama’s proposal excludes entitlement spending.

Still, Mr. Spratt was not the most vociferous critic that year.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who is now majority leader, blasted the Bush proposal. He excoriated Mr. Bush for not using his regular veto powers and blamed Republicans for ballooning spending.

“It is a ruse, it is a fraud, it is a sham,” he said.

He also wondered why Congress would give up its authority.

“We are the policymakers. Article I,” he said, calling Republicans “a lap dog” for Mr. Bush. “We are a co-equal branch. We are not a branch to ask leave of the president to take action.”

On Monday, Mr. Hoyer said he will “discuss this legislation” with Mr. Obama and House Democrats, but, like other leaders, he focused on how much action Congress has already taken to impose new rules.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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