RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Bush last week signed a $39 billion deficit reduction bill. It was nearly a year in the making. It passed the House by a mere two votes, and it passed the Senate only after Vice President Dick Chaney broke a tie. Now, a clerk's error has raised the possibility that the bill might not be law after all.
NPR's Julie Rovner explains.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
President Bush praised the measure at the White House signing ceremony last week.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: This important piece of legislation restrains federal spending, and it will leave more money in the pockets of those who know how to use it best, the American people.
ROVNER: But behind the scenes, there was a scramble going on. It seems a clerk accidentally changed a number on one of the Medicare provisions of the bill after the measure left the Senate, but before it returned to the House for a final vote. The mistake, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was fixed before the bill went to the White House, but it appears that the bills that passed the House and Senate were not the same, and that's a problem.
Professor DAVID VLADECK (Georgetown University Law Center): This violates one of the most fundamental guarantees in the Constitution, namely that both Houses of Congress have to agree on all elements of a bill before it becomes law.
MONTAGNE: David Vladeck is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and an expert on cases involving Constitutional separation of powers. He says this particular glitch is much more serious than the normal typo or error that gets passed by both Houses and fixed later.
Professor VLADECK: This bill is not a law because it doesn't meet the requirements of bicameralism. And as far as I know, this precise question has never arisen in the past.
ROVNER: Republican lawmakers who spent most of last year getting the measure through say the whole thing is being overblown. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt says there is no question that the bill is now a law.
Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri, House Majority Whip): The President signed it. It is law. If there is a technical problem, I think it can be solved in a technical way.
ROVNER: In fact, just hours after the bill signing, the Senate tried to do just that. It passed a resolution clarifying that the bill sent to the President reflected the intent of both the House and Senate. The House hasn't acted on it yet, but Vladeck says even if it does, it won't cure the measure's Constitutional defect.
Professor VLADECK: That would be a Band-Aid that would not fix the problem. And I hope this doesn't come before the courts. I hope Congress stands up and says, There was an error made; in order to preserve our Constitutional responsibility we will go back and reenact this legislation, and this time we won't fudge.
ROVNER: But going back to reenact the measure is about the last thing Republicans want to do, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): The reason that this passed by the narrowest of margins is because there's so much that's difficult and controversial that leaves large numbers of constituencies unhappy. This is like saying to somebody who's just been through childbirth without anesthetic, Oops, we made a little mistake there, we're going to reinsert the fetus and you'll have to go through it again.
ROVNER: If Congress doesn't re-vote, however, there is a long line of people who could sue, says Sara Rosenbaum, a law professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, starting with those affected by the billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
Professor SARA ROSENBAUM (George Washington University School of Public Health): Any aggrieved party, whether it's a large hospital that was supposed to get more Medicare payments, or a beneficiary who was supposed to get more Medicaid benefits, could allege potentially in court that the government conduct was unlawful because in fact there was no change in the law. The bill is a nullity.
ROVNER: House Democrats, having blocked the clarifying resolution, are now trying to decide whether to try to force the re-vote on the entire bill.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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