While Congress fights over next year's federal budget, a new lawsuit is charging that this year's budget bill is unconstitutional and should be declared void. The bill to cut $39 billion in federal spending over the next five years was controversial from the start. It passed the House by only two votes and the Senate only after Vice President Cheney broke a tie.
And although President Bush signed the bill last month, the fight over its validity is far from over. A clerk's error led to the House and Senate passing slightly different versions of the bill, which, says Adina Rosenbaum of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, is more than a minor problem.
"It's simple elementary-school social studies that, under the Constitution, a bill has to pass both houses of Congress to become law," she said. "This is an unusual circumstance in which the government has bypassed that specific Constitutional requirement."
Millions of Americans stand to lose federal benefits under the budget bill, including those who get Medicaid health coverage, welfare and child support payments, and student loans. Public Citizen represents many of those interests. But in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the group takes aim only at a tiny provision that raises the filing fee for federal civil cases from $250 to $350. That alone gives the group standing to sue, Rosenbaum said.
"As an organization that files numerous cases in the district courts each year, we are going to be injured by that raise in filing fees," Rosenbaum said.
Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook says that because of the Constitutional question, the entire law -- with all its billions in benefit cuts -- is invalid, so it doesn't matter which provision actually gets it into court.
"We think that members of Congress and the president ought to obey the law. And when they don't, that they have to be brought to account," she said.
Republicans, however, say groups that opposed the budget bill are overreaching.
"The House and the Senate passed the bill, the President signed it, aware after significant discussion with all kinds of counsel what this technical problem was, and it is now the law," House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) told NPR last month.
The White House late Tuesday reiterated that sentiment in a written statement.
"Congress presented a bill certified by both chambers. It's been signed into law and we consider the matter closed," said Scott Milburn, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.
Public Citizen officials say they hope to hear back from the court within the next few months.
Meanwhile, the issue of the law's validity has been raised in several other lawsuits around the country, and decisions in some of those cases may come first.