updated 5/2/2006 3:07:18 PM ET 2006-05-02T19:07:18

A proposal to restore a scaled-back version of the line-item veto authority for presidents drew withering scorn Tuesday from the dean of the Senate, who called it “an offensive slap at Congress.”

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But the White House defended the idea as a way for President Bush to weed wasteful spending from appropriations bills that he has little choice but to sign.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia led the Democratic assault on Bush’s so-called legislative line-item veto, saying it would shift too much of Congress’ cherished constitutional power of the purse to the executive branch, while giving the president a new club with which to threaten lawmakers.

Under the traditional line-item veto, presidents get to strike individual items from a bill without having to veto the entire measure.

An earlier, stronger version of the line-item veto passed in 1996 under the new Republican majority in Congress, but the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional two years later because it allowed the president to single-handedly change laws passed by Congress.

President seeks watered-down version
Bush is now pressing for a modified, weaker version. Instead of being able to strike items from bills, he would send one or more items back to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Present law permits Congress to ignore these proposed rescissions, but under the Bush proposal. lawmakers would have to vote on them. If majorities in both the House and the Senate agreed with the president, the cuts would take effect.

White House budget official Austin Smythe said the bill is designed to “give the president a tool to reduce unnecessary or wasteful spending” as well as “improve accountability and cast a brighter light on spending items that probably would not have survived had they not been included in a much larger bill.”

Too much power, Byrd warns
That’s too much leverage to give the president, Byrd said, warning that presidents could use the authority to bully members by singling out the projects of his political opponents. Or he could use such threats to win votes on other legislation.

“He could use this new leverage to squeeze members. He could play election year politics,” Byrd said. “It is a weapon that the president could use to threaten and reward, and with the threat of that Damocles sword hanging over each member’s head, he could expect to have his way on many issues.”

Despite his vehemence Tuesday, Byrd supported the core idea when it was offered as a Democratic alternative to the tougher line-item veto law more than a decade ago.

Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the proposal would have to be modified to make sure presidents would not be able to impound funds or clutter the congressional agenda with endless votes and debates on spending cut proposals.

GOP chairman doubts abuse
Gregg added in an interview that he doubted presidents would abuse the power because they would lose effectiveness in their dealings with Congress. And the pending version requiring a majority vote in Congress to support the president is not nearly as powerful a weapon as was the old line-item veto law, which killed items unless two-thirds of both House and Senate voted to overturn him.

“He’s going to be significantly limited by the nature of the need for votes as to what he can send up in one of these (spending cut) packages,” Gregg said. “This is nowhere near the club the line-item veto gave to the president.”

The bill faces a challenging road ahead in Congress. It almost certainly faces a filibuster in the Senate. And in addition to opposition from Democrats, there is at least some reluctance from Senate GOP traditionalists such as Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who worry it may give too much authority to the president.

But 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts is a co-sponsor.

Voters want ‘pork’ pulled
The line-item veto debate comes as voters seem increasingly concerned over wasteful spending and so-called pork barrel projects that dot spending bills passed by Congress. And with Congress earning dismal approval ratings, the idea of reforming earmarking excesses is gaining popularity.

For example, the House this week will vote on requiring members to attach their names to “earmarks” — those hometown projects slipped into spending bills.

And as early as Tuesday, the Senate was in position to vote on amendments by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to strip earmarks from a pending war funding bill. Coburn had surprising success last week, winning a 51-44 tally to strip $15 million in funding for a seafood promotion program from the bill.

Now, Coburn is gunning for an earmark benefiting Northrop Grumman Corp., owner of the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., by giving the company up to $500 million in compensation for business disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina.

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