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Clinton Ready to Wield Enhanced Veto Power

December 4, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton soon will be able to use his veto pen as a scalpel, the first president empowered to remove individual projects and items from spending and tax bills.

Administration officials say Clinton is eager to use this new line-item veto authority, which comes courtesy of the Republican-led Congress.

Clinton plans to combine these new powers with the conventional veto to wield what could be a potent second-term veto strategy.

``He is clearly prepared to use the line-item veto for the purpose for which it was intended, which is to cut out wasteful spending and unnecessary benefits on the tax side,″ said Larry Haas, chief spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

No longer will Clinton have to just complain about pork barrel projects or many special-interest tax breaks that are embedded deep in spending and tax bills.

Starting Jan. 1, he can kill such items while signing into law the rest of the legislation.

Not only does this give Clinton enhanced powers to strike projects or programs he doesn’t like, but it also can greatly strengthen his bargaining stance.

For instance, he could threaten to kill a lawmaker’s pet project in return for support on some other piece of legislation.

``It’s important to see what kind of precedent he sets with it, how the president uses it, whether he uses it to reduce spending or to improve his negotiating position for getting something he really wants,″ said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Since the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, congressional Republicans have pressed for line-item veto powers. Governors of 43 states have such authority, as Clinton himself did when he was governor of Arkansas.

It was a top item in the GOP ``Contract With America″ as Republicans seized control of both chambers of Congress.

Not surprisingly, Clinton had no problem embracing this part of the GOP agenda.

Republican leaders, leery of giving the authority to a Democrat, stalled for months, then finally agreed in June to give it to the next president _ hoping it would be one of their own, Bob Dole.

But that was not to be, and Clinton becomes the first beneficiary of these expanded presidential powers.

The line-item veto only applies to certain kinds of legislation _ such as big appropriations bills that determine how the government’s money is spent and keep major departments in operation.

Such measures long have been used by lawmakers as vehicle for dozens, even hundreds, of relatively small projects like dam and bridge construction or new federal buildings in their states or districts.

In the past, presidents were powerless to reject such items without vetoing an entire spending bill _ sometimes with unpleasant consequences, like government shutdowns.

The new law also gives the president the power to strike certain items out of tax bills, such as tax breaks that would only benefit a few individuals or companies.

While Clinton is ready to use the new powers, ``I can’t prejudge how often he may use it,″ said Hass of the OMB. ``None of us know exactly how it’s going to work.″

He said it wasn’t clear whether the new law would inhibit lawmakers from adding ``wasteful spending″ to legislation _ or have the opposite effect, putting an increased onus on the president for having to cut hometown projects.

Lawmakers may also try clever ways to get around the new veto law, suggest some analysts, such as lumping many such projects together or putting in language exempting certain spending-items from the line-item veto.

``It’s going to add a whole layer of negotiating and bargaining to the whole budget process,″ said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ornstein suggests the line-item vote transfers too much power from Congress to the executive branch. ``We’re setting up a constitutional test here,″ he said.

It could actually be months before Clinton gets a spending or tax bill on which to apply the new powers, since such measures take a long time to work their way through Congress.

In his first term, Clinton used his conventional veto powers 15 times, all within the past year and a half. He has been overridden only once, a 1995 veto of a bill limiting lawsuits alleging securities fraud.

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