Bush Calls on Senate to Pass Line-Item Veto

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

President Bush pushed the Senate yesterday to give him and his successors the power to strip special projects out of spending bills, part of a broader political effort to assuage disaffected supporters that he really is a fiscal conservative despite the growth of government on his watch.

The president summoned key senators to the White House and later gave a speech promoting a line-item veto to fight earmarks, or spending requests that members of Congress slip into larger bills without going through the normal budget process. The House has passed one version of the proposal and another is waiting for a vote on the Senate floor.

Bush said he needs the power to have more influence over lawmakers as they spend taxpayer money. "I want to be a part of the budgetary process," he said in an address sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. "It's an important part of the president's working with Congress and I'm not going to deal myself out of the budgetary process."

Bush has never vetoed a bill in his 5 1/2 years in office and, while long on record in favor of a line-item veto, he has never made a concerted effort to win such authority from Congress until this year as polls showed increasing conservative anxiety about federal spending. Since he took office, the federal budget has grown nearly 50 percent, from $1.86 trillion to a proposed $2.77 trillion for the coming fiscal year, driven in part by the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise in entitlement costs.

To demonstrate commitment to fiscal restraint, Bush forced Congress to back down after it tried to load up a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill for war operations and hurricane relief this month. He also has frozen non-security discretionary domestic spending for two years in a row and vowed to cut the deficit in half by 2009.

In seeking a line-item veto, Bush set sights on the most politically charged form of federal spending, often called pork. The number of earmarks inserted into spending bills has mushroomed from 3,055 in 1996 to 14,211 in 2004, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the overall cost has more than doubled to $52.7 billion.

But even if Bush had a line-item veto and struck every earmark, it would only carve a fraction out of a deficit projected to reach up to $350 billion this year. And as Bush said yesterday, Congress has met every overall spending target he has given it, meaning that the president and lawmakers have agreed on the broad direction of federal spending since he took office.

"This is not a budgetary issue. It's an issue of separation or overlap of power," said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on issues affecting low-income Americans. "It's primarily or exclusively a question of increasing the president's leverage over legislation."

A president could hold up a highway project in a lawmaker's district to win a vote on another priority, Kogan noted. "His threats and promises will be more forceful than they were in the past."

Some supporters of the president agreed the proposal would do little to fight deficit spending. The "line-item veto is a whiff," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) told reporters after meeting with Bush yesterday. "You know, all our budgets are within the president's request for appropriated spending -- the discretionary spending. And that's not busting the budget." The real problem, he said, is entitlement spending.

Bush agreed that the government needs to get control over programs such as Social Security and Medicare and he vowed to keep trying as long as he is in office. "If we can't get it done this year, I'm going to try next year," he said. "And if we can't get it done next year, I'm going to try the year after that, because it is the right thing to do."

Yet he emphasized that he would not trim military spending, which has been a large part of the growth of government. "We will not shortchange the people who wear the uniform of the United States military," Bush said.

Congress passed a line-item veto in 1996, but the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The new version is constructed in a different way intended to address the court's concerns. While the old version functioned like a traditional veto in requiring two-thirds majorities in both houses to overturn the president's decision, the new version allows Congress to restore targeted spending items on simple majority votes.

The Senate version, crafted by Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), includes other budget process changes not in the House legislation. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) did not commit yesterday to a date for a floor vote.

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