Specter Challenges Presidential Signing Statements

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President Bush has regularly added signing statements to laws passed by the Congress, with some statements noting an unwillingness to enforce the law. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says the president's actions are a challenge to the Constitution. He wants to be able to sue the president over signings.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A top Republican lawmaker says he's considering a new way for Congress to challenge the president. His plan would let Congress sue President Bush before the Supreme Court.

Arlen Specter made that threat at yesterday's hearing on controversial documents known as presidential signing statements. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

The fact that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter is even considering a lawsuit against President Bush, shows just how irked he is.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): There's certainly enormous frustration, and the court is the arbiter.

SHAPIRO: Specter has asked former Reagan administration official Bruce Fein to draft legislation that would let Congress sue the president. Fein says the case would look just like any other lawsuit, except the trial would be the political equivalent of Godzilla versus King Kong.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Former Deputy General under Ronald Reagan): The Congress, the United States Congress, would be the plaintiff, and they would file a complaint against the president seeking an injunction against refusing to enforce a law.

SHAPIRO: The practice Fein calls refusing to enforce a law is at the crux of this debate.

President Bush has issued signing statements some 750 times, when signing bills into law. Many of those simply thanked the bill's sponsors, or explained why the bill will help Americans. But some are more contentious, such as a signing statement that accompanied the bill that included a renunciation of torture. As Democratic Senator Russ Feingold recalled, Congress passed the anti-torture language after a heated national debate.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): You would think that would be the end of the matter. But what happened, the president responded by issuing a signing statement making clear that he would retain the right not to comply with the law if he chose not to do so.

SHAPIRO: Democrats at the hearing referred to signing statements as disclaimers, de facto line item vetoes, or a calculated expansion of presidential power. Republican Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, says those descriptions all get it wrong.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I find the use of presidential signing statements as helpful for us to understand the rationale of the executive branch in signing the legislation, rather than vetoing it.

SHAPIRO: Cornyn noted that every president in recent history has issued signing statements to explain how they'll interpret a bill they're signing into law. Still, President Bush has issued more signing statements then any of his predecessors.

The Justice Department sent Michelle Boardman to speak for the executive branch. She's Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. Boardman said any increase in signing statements must be viewed in light of current events.

Ms. MICHELLE BOARDMAN (Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel): The significance of legislation effecting national security has increased markedly since September 11th. Congress has been more active. The President has been more active. The system of separation of powers is working when we have this kind of dispute.

SHAPIRO: The ranking Democratic Senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, was not in the room to hear her comment. He left after accusing the White House of disrespecting Congress.

He complained that the White House and the Justice Department refused to send anyone more senior than a deputy assistant attorney general to testify.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Ms. Boardman, I wish you well, but you know, its almost irrelevant, what you say. Because once again, this administration has said, they don't care what we think because they're going to decide what laws to follow and what laws to disobey.

SHAPIRO: White House spokesman Tony Snow later told reporters that Boardman was sent to testify because signing statements are her area of expertise. But committee chairman Specter was not satisfied with her testimony. He explained his frustration after the hearing.

Senator SPECTER: Well, there wasn't frustration from the answers we received. The frustration was from the answers we didn't receive. Instead of answering the question, she gave us some historical background.

SHAPRIO: So, Specter suggested legislation that would let Congress sue the president. Specter knows it'll be tough to get such a bill through a Republican Congress, and he knows the president could veto it. But at this point, he seems to have few options for getting the administration's attention.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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