On Signing Statements, McCain Says 'Never,' Obama and Clinton 'Sometimes'

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, February 25, 2008

Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) made an arresting claim on the campaign trail last week: If elected president, he would issue no signing statements reserving the right to disregard parts of laws passed by Congress.

Asked by my colleague Glenn Kessler whether he would ever consider issuing a signing statement as president, Sen. McCain was emphatic: "Never, never, never, never. If I disagree with a law that passed, I'll veto it."

The comment brought to life the question of whether President Bush's aggressive defense of presidential prerogatives will outlast his administration. Bush has been heavily criticized by lawmakers and others over his extensive use of signing statements, in which, rather than veto a bill, he makes it clear he will not be bound by what he considers unconstitutional provisions included by Congress.

All three of the leading presidential contenders have suggested they would take a different approach than Bush: What's striking is that McCain appears perhaps even more radical than his Democratic rivals in adopting a seemingly ironclad refusal to issue signing statements. If he truly were to follow that approach, it would represent a sharp break in presidential practice, according to lawyers on both sides of the ideological divide.

Responding to a questionnaire late last year by the Boston Globe, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made clear their view that Bush has gone too far in issuing signing statements -- but that there are circumstances in which such statements are necessary.

"The problem with this administration is that it has attached signing statements to legislation in an effort to change the meaning of the legislation, to avoid enforcing certain provisions of the legislation that the President does not like, and to raise implausible or dubious constitutional objections to the legislation," Obama answered. But, he added: "No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president's constitutional prerogatives."

In her own Globe questionnaire, Clinton made a similar point about legal issues. "I would only use signing statements in very rare instances to note and clarify confusing or contradictory provisions, including provisions that contradict the Constitution," she wrote. "My approach would be to work with Congress to eliminate or correct unconstitutional provisions before legislation is sent to my desk."

SMU to Vet Bush Institute Fellows

As plans for Bush's presidential library and museum take shape, also coming into view is the public policy institute that Bush wants to see as a companion on the Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University.

On Friday, officials with the university and Bush's presidential library foundation formally announced that the library complex will be housed at SMU, the alma mater of first lady Laura Bush. After they raise the hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations necessary to build the library, it will be turned over to the National Archives system.

The institute, by contrast, will be run by the foundation, an arrangement that has raised the hackles of some SMU faculty. University officials say there will be a strict separation of powers: Any fellow at the Bush institute, for instance, will have to go through the normal university hiring process for a joint appointment at SMU.

From the looks of it, the Bush institute could be something like the Hoover Institution, the conservative-leaning think tank housed at Stanford University. It will have its own scholars and seminars and have joint programs with the university, according to library and university officials.

Donald L. Evans, Bush friend, former commerce secretary and chairman of the Bush foundation, said in an interview Friday that he expects global leaders to visit the institute to share their insights, while scholars focus on issues that dominated the Bush presidency, such as terrorism, education reform and -- in particular, he said -- democracy promotion around the world.

"It will be a place where scholars and fellows and researchers come to discuss a wide range of views," Evans said.

'Pell for Kids' Plan Gets Cautious Support

At least one Democrat appeared to be listening closely last month when Bush went through his final-year agenda, including a plan to provide $300 million in scholarships for poor children to attend private or parochial schools. During his State of the Union address, Bush called it "Pell Grants for Kids," adopting the name of the popular program for college aid rather than the more politically problematic term "vouchers."

Last week, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) announced he would introduce a bill in the next several weeks that would give such grants to kids in failing schools -- but only to attend charter schools, independently operated schools that are part of the public school system.

Emanuel is known as a fierce partisan on Capitol Hill, having helped lead the way to the Democratic takeover in 2006, but he has also looked for ways to work with the White House. He has tried to bond with White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, attending a Nationals baseball game with him last year, and spent the day with Bush recently when the president visited Emanuel's home town, Chicago. Given the antipathy many Democrats have to vouchers, Emanuel described his plan as a way of trying to split the difference with the administration.

"I didn't think much of his State of the Union, but that was one idea worth looking at," Emanuel said last week, describing himself as a big proponent of charter schools. "If they want to do it for private schools, they need to find someone else. But if the president wants it, he can have a success."

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Emanuel's idea shares characteristics with Bush's plan and said he deserves credit for trying to expand educational opportunity through charter schools. But, said Stanzel, "it's not fair to concede that a low-income child has a right to a better education and then severely limit the available options."

A Danish Double

The prime minister of tiny Denmark has received an honor reserved by Bush for only six other world leaders: an invitation to both Camp David and the presidential ranch in Crawford, Tex.

In 2006, Anders Fogh Rasmussen went biking with Bush at Camp David. This weekend, he will spend the night at the Bush ranch in Texas and almost certainly use the bike trails Bush and his staff have built over the past several years.

Britain's Tony Blair, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi have long departed the world stage, leaving Rasmussen as one of the long-standing Bush favorites still in office. The brainy economist who leads a conservative government has backed Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan -- and seemingly paid no political price, winning reelection handily last November.

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