WASHINGTON – The Senate’s passage Wednesday night of a measure giving the president power to delete items from federal spending bills came without the help of Maryland’s two members.
The Senate passed, 69-31, a bill providing for a modified line-item veto, a key piece of the Republicans’ “Contract With America.”
But Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Baltimore Democrats, voted in the minority.
“What is happening here is an enormous transfer of authority from the legislative branch to the executive branch that completely contravenes and contradicts the Constitution,” Sarbanes told his colleagues.
He said if the measure is approved as expected by the House and signed by the president, he hoped the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional.
A House vote could come later this week.
In the House, five of Maryland’s seven members said they support the idea. Two – Democratic Reps. Benjamin Cardin of Baltimore and Steny Hoyer of Mitchellville – said they would probably vote for it but wish to see the bill language before committing.
“It’s a tool for helping balance the budget,” said Republican Rep. Constance Morella of Bethesda. “I think it’s a fiscally responsible opportunity for the president to look at the budget and not veto the whole thing.”
Democratic Rep. Al Wynn of Largo also said he supports it. “I think it’s a legitimate device to help us rein in spending and reduce the deficit,” he said. “It’s a useful and legitimate tool.”
President Clinton supported the line-time veto in his 1992 campaign and again in this year’s State of the Union address.
The measure enhances the president’s power to eliminate or reduce funding items he considers wasteful. The cuts would take effect unless Congress acts.
Congress could reverse the president’s cuts by passing a bill to that effect and then overriding the president’s probable veto of it with a two-thirds majority.
“In effect, the president, as long as he can hold on to one- third plus one of either house, can determine every spending priority of this country,” Sarbanes said. “In the hands of a vindictive president, the line-item veto could be absolutely brutal.”
Sen. Majority Leader Robert Dole, the likely Republican nominee for president, responded, “We shouldn’t elect a vindictive president.”
The measure, which would expire in eight years, also allows the president to rescind certain tax items.
Now, the president may eliminate or reduce spending items from the budget, but they are not effective unless Congress passes legislation approving the changes.
The proposal is a compromise between a House measure that passed in February 1995 and a Senate version that passed in March 1995.
Hoyer was the only Maryland member of the House to have voted against the 1995 line-item veto measure, but indicated support for the version now being considered.
He said he thought the relatively late timing of this measure in this election year indicated that Republicans were panicking due to what he called their “abysmal” performance. He said the Republicans have sat on the measure for a year “for purely political partisan reasons.”
He said, “Republicans have prattled on for years about getting the line-item veto.”
Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich of Timonium, who also supports the bill, called the charge of panicking “ridiculous on its face.”
Under the proposal, the new presidential powers would be effective Jan. 1, 1997. If a law is enacted balancing the budget within seven years, however, the bill would become effective sooner.
These effective date provisions help resolve the qualms some Republicans had about giving the new powers to a Democratic president. Arguments over the advisability of a line-item veto have raged over much of American history. The Congressional Research Service noted that at least 10 presidents since the Civil War have expressed support for the line-item veto, including Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush. -30-