The Line-Item Veto Resurfaces in Washington

President Bush asked Congress on Monday to give him a line-item veto. But the request faces hurdles because a previous version that Congress passed under former President Bill Clinton was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

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President Bush had hardly returned from a trip overseas when he issued a new challenge to Congress. He wants an additional presidential power: the authority to revise all spending bills item by item. Most governors have what is called the line-item veto, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1998, that it is unconstitutional at the federal level.

NPR's David Green reports on why the president wants to get around that ruling now.

DAVID GREEN reporting:

The president seemed fully confident as he laid out his proposal yesterday at the White House. He noted that a Republican Congress gave former President Bill Clinton a form of line-item veto power in 1996.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's been approved previously. Forty-three governors have this line-time veto in their states. Now it's time to bring this important tool for fiscal discipline to Washington, D.C.

GREEN: Governors rely on the line-item veto in part because their constitutions require balanced budgets. There is no such requirement at the federal level. It's worth noting too that Mr. Bush has yet to veto anything in more than five years in office. And, in fact, the proposal the White House described yesterday is not so much a veto, as a way for the president to compel Congress to reconsider individual line items in a spending bill. The Congress would then respond by simple majority vote, not the two-thirds majority required to override a real veto.

Still, Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, says he likes Mr. Bush's idea. The problem may be getting Congress to focus on it in a busy election year.

Mr. TOM SCHATZ (President, Citizens Against Government Waste): I would say the odds are probably less than 50-50, given the short time period. And the fact that the first time, the line-item veto did pass, it took several years of very hard work by its sponsors to get the bill to the floor.

GREENE: Since his reelection, the president's had trouble controlling the national agenda. He invested time and energy in a proposal to revamp Social Security, only to see it crumble in Congress. He has seen support for his war in Iraq decline steadily. Events such as Hurricane Katrina, as well as issues such as tax overhaul and immigration, have undermined the sense that he and his congressional team could get things done. It wasn't like this in the first term. When Mr. Bush asked Congress for more power, for instance, to negotiate trade deals, he got it. And he and Congress celebrated together.

President GEORGE W. Bush: Starting now, America is back at the bargaining table in full force.

(Sound bite of applause)

GREENE: That was 2002 when the president's approval ratings were in the 60s. A big majority of Americans trusted him as the leader who stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks, acknowledging the shouts of firefighters.

(Sound bite of applause)

President BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you.

(Sound bite of cheering)

President BUSH: And the people...

(Sound bite of cheering)

President BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(Sound bite of cheering)

GREENE: That memory echoed throughout the president's election campaign of 2004. But soon thereafter, as the war in Iraq ground on, doubts arose and intensified. The president's poll numbers started downward in the spring and fell further in September when Mr. Bush landed on the Gulf Coast speaking of Katrina, as it affected one Mississippi's senator's home.

President BUSH: Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house, cause Trent lost his entire house, there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch.

GREENE: That was when growing numbers of Americans lowered the grade they gave Mr. Bush as a leader. He's never fully recovered. And recent stories about warnings the White House had prior to the hurricane have renewed these wounds. Polls now show the president's approval rating in the mid to upper 30s.

Independent pollster Andy Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, says the only president since World War Two with lower marks in a second term was Richard Nixon.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (Independent Pollster, Pew Research Center): If he goes all the way up to 41 percent, he will only be as high as President Clinton was in 1994, when his party took such a big hit that they lost control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

GREENE: Republicans have called on the president to shake up his White House staff. But he has shown no sign of doing so. In an interview with ABC News last week, he said he doesn't obsess over polls.

President BUSH: Look. Look. I fully understand that when you do hard things it creates consternation at times. And, you know, I been up in the polls. And I been down in the polls. And I, it's just part of life in the modern era.

GREENE: One think this president has always done is to continue going forward on his own path whatever may come. In this sense, yesterday's line-item proposal is an offensive move at a moment when others might be feeling defensive. Tomorrow, he will pay another visit to the storm ravaged Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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