WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama sent legislation to Congress on Monday that would allow him to force lawmakers to vote on cutting earmarks and wasteful programs from spending bills.
The legislation would award Obama and his successors the ability to take two months or more to scrutinize spending bills that have already been signed into law for pork barrel projects and other dubious programs. He could then send Congress a package of spending cuts for a mandatory up-or-down vote on whether to accept or reject them.
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said that while the new presidential power would not be a panacea for the government's spending excesses, it would "add to the arsenal of tools" available to reduce spending.
In a phone conference with reporters Monday, he said the legislation was crafted to avoid constitutional hurdles. Past efforts "gave the knife to the president" to make the cuts, he said, while the Obama administration's bill would give it back to Congress to make the final decision on cuts.
Senate Democrats filibustered the idea to death just three years ago, and so Obama's move would seem like a long shot. But the plan could pick up traction in the current anti-Washington political environment in which lawmakers are desperate to demonstrate they are tough on spending.
Orszag said lawmakers concerned about the current fiscal situation "are eager to look for tools that will help us to reduce unnecessary spending whenever and wherever possible."
The top two Democrats in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, stopped short of endorsing the president's initiative. "We look forward to reviewing the president's proposal and working together to do what's right for our nation's fiscal health and security, now and in the future," Pelosi said.
House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement Monday that while Republicans are pleased the president was sending the legislation to Congress, "this is no substitute for a real budget that reins in overall federal spending."
House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., said he would formally introduce the bill later this week. He welcomed the Obama proposal "as a step forward on the path to fiscal responsibility," adding that Congress would look at it carefully and "see what changes we may want to make."
The White House move also comes as Obama's Democratic allies in Congress are trying to pass a tax and spending bill providing $174 billion for programs such as unemployment benefits, aid to state governments, and help for doctors facing a big cut in Medicare reimbursements. The Senate is also taking up an almost $60 billion war funding bill, and a vote looms on an administration-backed plan to add $23 billion to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs.
Under the Constitution, the president has to either sign a bill — forcing him to take the bad along with the good — or veto it, which can be impractical. That allows Congress to pad spending legislation with items a president does not like.
The White House says Obama would use the new power to try to weed out earmarks such as water and sewer grants and road projects not requested by the administration.
The new authority is far weaker than the line-item veto power a GOP-dominated Congress gave President Clinton in 1996. Under that bill, before it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1998, Clinton's line-item vetoes automatically went into effect unless overturned by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.
When Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., tried in 2007 to force a vote on the weaker version, he won only 49 votes, far short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster led by Democrats such as Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who assailed it as an attack on Congress' power of the purse.
All but a handful of state governors have the line-item veto, which allows then to kill individual items in spending bills unless they are overridden by state legislatures.
When Clinton used the line-item veto, he applied a light touch. Even so, Congress recoiled and overrode many of his vetoes.
There is already a process under which Obama can ask Congress to cut wasteful programs, but lawmakers are free to ignore the request. Republicans have urged Obama to send the Democratic-controlled Congress a package of such rescissions, but he has opted not to do so.
The new spending cut proposal would apply to the $1 trillion-plus in Cabinet agency budgets passed by Congress each year. Programs like farm subsidies and Medicare wouldn't be threatened; neither would special interest tax breaks.