A line-item veto proposal unveiled by the White House today will get a hearing on Wednesday, reigniting a long-smoldering debate over Congress' power of the purse.
President Obama's proposal, which would allow presidents to send up a package of spending cuts targeted at earmarks and other small-ticket items for approval by a simple majority of both the House and Senate, is the latest in a string of suggestions for replacing the line-item veto authority that President Clinton enjoyed briefly before the Supreme Court struck it down in 1998 as unconstitutional. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, headed by line-item veto proponent Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., will consider the Obama plan and others at a hearing Wednesday.
Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag told reporters today that the Clinton's line-item authority gave "the knife to the president," while Obama's proposal -- which allows lawmakers the final say on spending cuts -- gives "the knife back to Congress."
The White House can already propose spending cuts, or rescissions -- a point that congressional Republicans quickly made this morning. "Why can't we start cutting wasteful Washington spending right now?" House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, asked in a statement.
The Obama plan would require presidents to submit a package of targeted cuts within 45 days of any major appropriations bill's enactment. The package could not be amended, and Congress would consider the rescissions under expedited procedures that limit debate in the Senate and would not permit filibusters. Only simple majority approval would be needed in the Senate, rather than the 60-vote threshold that has become the norm in the upper chamber.
Obama's proposal comes in a week when lawmakers are considering a roughly $200 billion tax-and-spending package as well as a $60 billion war and disaster relief package, which together threaten to add nearly $200 billion to the federal deficit after some revenue increases in the tax package are deducted. Democrats wary of the anti-spending mood in their home states and districts are nervous about approving such big-ticket bills. Approval of a new spending rescission procedure or other belt-tightening measures could be a political sweetener for such members.
But lawmakers in both parties have been cool to past efforts at resuscitating the line-item veto, arguing that Congress should guard its power of the purse against executive branch encroachments. Orszag noted that earmarked appropriations would be a prime target for the new rescission authority, after repeated failures of anti-earmarking efforts in the Senate.
Many Democrats this year have also become increasingly wary of deficit proposals targeted at spending only. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and others have argued that targeted tax credits, loopholes and other "tax expenditures" cost the Treasury billions of dollars that could be either better spent or used to cut the deficit. OMB officials said today that the White House had considered targeting tax expenditures in its legislation, but their inclusion raised potential constitutionality questions. They also raised concerns that providing rescission authority for tax provisions would require an open amendment process rather than a fast-track process. Orszag said the White House is interested in exploring ways to target tax expenditures in addition to spending.
Acting OMB Deputy Director Jeffrey Liebman will testify about the administration's proposal at Feingold's Wednesday hearing.