President Bush finally may be getting serious about cutting the federal spending behemoth as well as curbing Congress' growing, and sometimes unethical, appetite for pork - euphemistically named "earmarks" by members.
In any event, the president's getting fiscal conservatives back on his side with his announcement that he's asking Congress to pass a new version of the line-item veto - a measure he says should pass constitutional muster, in contrast to the one President Clinton signed a decade ago that the Supreme Court subsequently struck down.
U.S. Rep Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the very conservative House Republican caucus, couldn't have been more enthusiastic. "To see him putting the full weight of his office behind a specific proposal to create a constitutional line-item veto is thrilling to those of us who know when it comes to federal spending, it's not so much bad people as bad process," said the congressman.
The Bush bill differs from the Clinton bill in that the latter gave the president the power to amend a law after Congress passed it, which the high court ruled was unconstitutional. Bush avoids that by pitfall by empowering his office to delete spending items - or tax cuts - that he thinks is bad for the economy, and then returning the rescission package to Congress for debate and a majority up or down vote.
This plan, says the White House legal team, is technically not a veto because it doesn't require a two-thirds vote to overturn it. It simply gives the president a larger role in the tax-and-spend process. Moreover, the stakes are much lower in targeting a number of spending items for cuts than in striking down an entire spending bill - which means this kind of line-item veto bill should be workable, says Pence, adding that, "There is no single reform that would do more to put our fiscal house in order than the line item veto. The problem with federal spending is that no one's in charge, so everyone is."
He's right. A line-item veto isn't a cure-all for overspending, but it's a healthy step in the right direction because it promotes accountability. Members will be held responsible for specific spending measures.
Although Bush has strong support from GOP leaders in both the House and Senate for his proposal, most Democratic leaders are pooh-poohing it. Yet some powerful Democrats are for it - including Bush's 2004 presidential foe, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Kerry would look hypocritical if he didn't back it. Bush modeled his line-item veto plan on a Kerry bill.
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