WASHINGTON, March 27 -- In what advocates called an historic move to curb Congress's spendthrift ways, the Senate approved a House- Senate compromise bill to give the executive branch a so-called line- item veto that would allow the president to ax individual items from spending bills. But critics warned it is an unwise, and possibly illegal, move by Congress to divest itself of its constitutional power over the nation's purse strings. And they complained that it will upset the delicate balance of power among the branches of government that had served the nation well since it's creation 208 years ago by the authors of the Constitution. The compromise bill passed the Senate 69-31 and now moves to the House. Advocates called the measure, similar to a bill that passed by the Senate with a strong margin last year, as a 'truly historic moment' and the culmination of a decade of effort. Some contended that a true line-item veto would require a constitutional amendment to expand the president's current veto authority, which is now limited to accepting or rejecting entire bills. Instead, the compromise seeks by means of a statute to provide an 'enhanced recision' the president could use to reject individual items from spending bills. The issue cuts across partisan lines, pitting self-declared defenders of the Constitution against lawmakers anxious to control congressional spending patterns that have yielded a national debt of nearly $5 trillion. And it has also produced some unusual, if uncomfortable, unions among political adversaries including President Clinton and Senate GOP leader Bob Dole, who is almost certain to be the Republican presidential nominee.
To help ease its passage, the two had agreed to make the line-item veto effective after the presidential election, with each nursing hopes he will be the executive to first wield it. 'All of our recent presidents have called for the line-item veto -- both Democrat and Republican presidents alike,' Dole said. 'No one is pretending it is the one big answer to all of our deficit problems. But it is one additional tool a president can use to help keep unnecessary spending down.' Dole also noted that the proposal was not permanent and would require Congress to renew the line-item veto in 2005. 'We'll try this experiment for a few years to see if it works,' he said. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. and a chief architect of the compromise bill, called it 'a victory for the American people.' 'The passage of the line-item veto will ensure that we spend less of their hard-earned dollars and spend the money more wisely,' he said. But Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., disagreed. 'The Senate is on the verge of making a colossal mistake...which will upset the constitutional system of checks and balances,' said Byrd. 'The control over the purse is the ultimate power to be exercised by the legislative branch to check the executive,' he said, adding the Senate was risking a repeat of the same error that began the end of the Roman Republic. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., warned that the measure was giving the president 'kingly power' that was contrary to the nation's democratic foundation. And he reminded his colleagues that dissatisfaction with a centralized monarchy led to the birth of the United States. Others complained that Congress was 'tinkering with (a) sacred document,' that Congress would be 'demoted to giving fiscal advice' and that the line-item veto could be abused by a president to punish Congress. And some opponents questioned whether Congress has the authority to even willingly give the president a share of its constitutionally dictated fiscal power without an amendment. Under the proposed legislation, the president could alter spending amounts but could not alter other language in a bill, even when it sets forth policies the White House opposes. The president also could strike so-called 'special interest' tax cuts that affect 100 or fewer individuals or businesses. If two-thirds of the House and Senate did not reverse a president's changes within 30 days, they would take effect. He could not, however, use his line-item veto again if Congress restores funding. The bill is to be passed in tandem with legislation to raise the nation's borrowing ceiling from $4.9 trillion to $5.5 trillion -- an amount large enough to carry the nation through the next fiscal year. Congress is facing an April 1 deadline to raise that ceiling or face a possible default on Treasury obligations. The line-item veto was originally to be tacked onto the debt legislation, but supporters opted to proceed with the compromise report to prevent it from being amended and possibly killed, especially by Byrd.