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Spending Measure Not a Law, Suit Says

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

For anyone who took fifth-grade social studies or sang "I'm Just a Bill," how legislation turns to law always seemed pretty simple: The House passes a bill, the Senate passes the same bill, the president signs it.

"He signed ya, Bill -- now you're a law," shouts the cartoon lawmaker on "Schoolhouse Rock" as Bill acknowledges the cheers.

But last month, Washington threw all that old-fashioned civics stuff into a tizzy, when President Bush signed into law a bill that actually never passed the House. Bill -- in this case, a major budget-cutting measure that will affect millions of Americans -- became a law because it was "certified" by the leaders of the House and Senate.

After stewing for weeks, Public Citizen, a legislative watchdog group, sued yesterday to block the budget-cutting law, charging that Bush and Republican leaders of Congress flagrantly violated the Constitution when the president signed it into law knowing that the version that cleared the House was substantively different from the Senate's version.

The issue is bizarre, with even constitutional scholars saying they could not think of any precedent for the journey the budget bill took to becoming a law. Opponents of the budget law point to elementary-school civics lessons to make their case, while Republicans are evoking an obscure Supreme Court ruling from the 1890s to suggest a bill does not actually have to pass both chambers of Congress to become law.

"We believe that the law is constitutional and that this is yet another political attempt by the Democrats to stop us from cutting spending," said Ronald D. Bonjean Jr., a spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

But liberal interest groups hoping to bring down the budget law have the backing of many legal scholars, who say that a $2 billion mistake cannot be ignored.

"The Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 may be something, but it is not law within the meaning of the Constitution," said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor.

No one disputes the central facts of the lawsuit: Last December, Vice President Cheney broke a tie vote in the Senate to win passage of a bill that would cut nearly $40 billion over five years by reducing Medicaid rolls, raising work requirements for welfare, and trimming the student loan program, among other changes.

Among those other changes was a provision to restrict Medicare payments for durable medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Under the Senate bill, government-funded leases for such equipment could last only 13 months.

As the measure was being sent to the House last month, a Senate clerk inadvertently changed that 13-month restriction to 36 months, a $2 billion alteration. With the mistaken change, the measure squeaked through the House, 216 to 214.

Once the mistake was revealed, Republican leaders were loath to fight the battle again by having another vote, so White House officials simply deemed the Senate version to be the law.


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