WASHINGTON -- House Republicans put aside their usual antipathy toward President Barack Obama on Wednesday to give the president, and his successors, the line-item veto, a constitutionally questionable power over the purse that long has been sought by presidents of both parties.
A minority of Democrats joined in casting a 254-173 vote in favor of allowing the president to pick out specific items in spending bills for elimination. Currently, the chief executive must sign or veto spending bills in their entirety.
The main opposition came from members of the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for putting together the annual spending bills. They argued that the bill upsets the constitutional separation of powers balance in favor of the executive branch, and that recent efforts to curtail so-called earmarks in spending bills make the line-item veto unnecessary.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.
In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress succeeded in giving line-item veto authority to another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. He exercised that authority 82 times, and although Congress overrode his veto in 38 instances, the moves saved the government almost $2 billion.
But in 1998, on a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, saying it violated the principle that Congress, and not the executive branch, holds the power of the purse.
Supporters say the bill has been written to meet constitutional standards. They say that while the president can propose items for rescission, or elimination, Congress must vote on the revised spending package and then the president must sign what is in effect a new bill.
The House bill, offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the top Democrat on the committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, stipulates that all savings from eliminated programs go to deficit reduction. House Republicans have included the bill as part of a package of measures to overhaul the budget process so as to save money.
Van Hollen, in arguing the need for more scrutiny of spending bills, pointed to the catch-all spending bill the House voted on in December, when members had only 15 hours to review a 1,200-page bill containing more than $1 trillion in spending.
"Sometimes we call them airdrops, earmarks, pork," Ryan said of special interest projects that find their way into spending bills. "Whatever you want to call it, we ought to have members of Congress think twice that they might have to justify this provision, this spending bill, on the merits."
Freshman Republican Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia voiced the dilemma felt by some Republicans about the bill: "I'm not thrilled about involving this president in budgeting decisions any more than is absolutely necessary," he said. "But given the nature of our challenges, it's not about this president or the previous president or the next president, it's about the American people."
But Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he opposed the measure because it would weaken the authority of Congress and give the president "a power that our founding fathers did not see fit to give to him." He added that a president can use the line-item veto to give preferences to his own spending priorities.
The bill was supported by 57 Democrats. Forty-one Republicans voted against it.
Under the proposal, the president has 45 days within the enactment of a spending bill to send a special message to Congress proposing cuts to any amount of discretionary, or non-entitlement, spending. Legislation to consider the proposed cuts would move quickly to the House and Senate floors for automatic up-or-down votes with no amendments.
The White House, in a statement, said it "strongly supports" passage of the bill, praising it for "helping to eliminate unnecessary spending and discouraging waste." It said the bill was similar to a line-item veto proposal that Obama sent to Congress in May 2010.
The bill faces an unclear road ahead in the Senate. Four senators – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coats of Indiana and Democrats Tom Carper of Delaware and Mark Udall of Colorado – pushed to have a line-item veto provision considered by the supercommittee which last year was unable to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit.
The four issued a statement after the vote calling on the Senate to take up the legislation. "With a $15 trillion national debt and record-low approval ratings of Washington," McCain said, "I can't think of a better time so show some fiscal restraint and help end wasteful pork-barrel spending."
But the Senate, traditionally more protective of its constitutional powers, has not always been receptive to the line-item veto idea. In 2007 former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., picked up 49 votes for a line-item proposal, well short of the 60 needed to break a Democratic-led filibuster.