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House of Representatives Approves Line-Item Veto

By Edwin Chen
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Making good on another Republican campaign promise, the House passed a bill Monday to give presidents the line-item veto, which would give chief executives a way to eliminate specific spending items from budgets without having to veto the entire measure.

Supported by 71 Democrats, the House adopted the measure 294-134 after limiting debate in part to ensure its passage Monday - the 84th birthday of former President Reagan, a champion of the line-item veto during his eight years in the White House.

Immediately afterward, an exuberant House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called the vote "a very important bipartisan" show of resolve by the new Congress. He and other House GOP leaders attended an emotional birthday cake-cutting event and sang Happy Birthday to Reagan.

But a sharp note of partisanship was injected by Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Rules Committee. "Let's note for the record that this Republican Congress has given a Democratic president a line-item veto in less than six weeks - unlike the Democratic congresses that turned a deaf ear to Presidents Reagan and Bush 12 years in a row."

House passage of the measure came on the 34th day of the House GOP's 100-day drive to take up its 10-point "Contract with America" by a self-imposed early April deadline.

The House approved the line-item veto after just three days of debate. Despite the support there and from President Clinton, the measure faces an uphill road in the Senate. There, committee work has been stalled twice by disagreements among leading Republicans over the extent of line-item veto authority a president should possess.

Some influential Democrats, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, are expected to delay its enactment - a prospect that Gingrich acknowledged by noting that the GOP will have to "overcome Sen. Byrd." Some GOP senators want to give the chief executive a more limited version of the line-item veto than that passed by the House.

Line-item veto proponents want to enable a chief executive to reach into, say, a gigantic appropriations bill and kill a specific spending item while approving the rest of the measure. Currently, the only option available to a president is to veto or accept the entire measure - faults and all.

Currently, a president may propose to rescind specific spending items. But his proposals die unless Congress approves them within 45 days of continuous session. Or as veto proponent Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., put it: "Doing nothing spends the money."

Although the president has never wielded line-item power, the governors of 43 states have such power already - and its impact on reducing spending overall has been slight. Studies have shown that governors often have simply used the line-item tool to substitute their on spending priorities for those approved by their state legislatures.

As Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas, a line-item veto backer conceded, spending proposals that are deleted by a presidential line-item veto still "can be spent on other programs" - as opposed to helping to reduce the deficit.

Political scientists also warn that the line-item veto can lead to increased spending - particularly if a chief executive and lawmakers engage in a frenzy of vote-trading over pet projects - as has happened in many states.

In some ways, "line-item veto" is a misnomer. The House measure actually does not allow the president, at the time that a bill is on his desk for signing, to approve some portions of a bill while vetoing others.

Instead, it would vastly increase his ability to propose the rescission of certain funds after they are appropriated. These rescissions would take effect automatically - unless Congress approves a resolution to block any of them. A president could then veto that resolution, but Congress in turn could override the veto by a two-thirds majority.

In the Senate, Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is proposing an alternative to the House bill that would allow a simple majority of Congress to kill presidential rescission proposals.

The disagreement between Domenici and advocates of the tougher House approach, led in the Senate by John McCain, R-Ariz., has caused the postponement of two drafting sessions by the Budget Committee.