Obama asks Congress for added power to slash spending measures

The White House called for a new presidential power Monday to slash spending in a way that would be similar to a line-item veto.

The “expedited rescission authority” that President Barack Obama is sending to Congress this week would allow the president to propose a package of cuts to recently signed spending measures and then force Congress to take up-or-down votes on it. Those cuts would become law if they received majorities in both chambers. 

The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate said it would review the plan, but stopped short of endorsing it. 

“Here we are providing a way for the president to give the knife back to Congress for it to cut unnecessary fat,” White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said on a conference call.

The president could propose cuts to provisions for new discretionary and non-entitlement mandatory spending but not to tax measures or Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. The current budget rules allow the president to propose rescissions to approved spending, but they don’t allow him to force lawmakers to vote on them.

Like a line-item veto, the proposed authority would let the president target specific provisions in a spending bill so that he wouldn’t have to veto the entire measure. Unlike the line-item veto, which was signed by then-President Bill Clinton in the 1990s but ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the power proposed by Obama would subject the president’s cuts to a review by Congress.

President George W. Bush had pushed for a revised line-item veto bill in 2006, but it stalled in Congress largely because of the opposition of most Democrats, including then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). When Bush’s proposal came up for a Senate vote in January 2007, then-Sens. Obama (D-Ill.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) voted with Reid against the measure.

It’s unclear whether Obama will have better luck with his proposal.

“We look forward to reviewing the president’s proposal and working together to do what’s right for our nation’s fiscal health and security, now and in the future,” Speaker Pelosi said in a statement. 

Majority Leader Reid agrees with the president on the need to cut wasteful spending and deal with the fiscal situation, and “is willing to work closely with the relevant committees and other senators to give serious consideration” to Obama’s proposal, said Reid spokeswoman Regan LaChapelle.

Appropriators in Congress, who have sought to protect their power over federal spending, have been the most vocal opponents of presidential line-item veto authority in the past and are likely to be a hurdle again.

“This is nothing but old wine (or whine) in a new bottle,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in a statement. “Congress has the constitutional authority over the power of the purse and I am not in favor of yet another attempt at a power-grab by a chief executive.”

The White House’s focus on fiscal responsibility comes ahead of tough votes the administration and congressional leaders are asking Democratic members to make this week. 

House leaders are planning a vote on a $174 billion bill extending unemployment benefits, Medicare doctor payments and tax provisions, some of which are aimed at spurring hiring. That bill would add $134 billion to the deficit over the next decade. 

The Senate plans to vote on a $58.8 billion emergency supplemental bill mostly aimed at funding Obama’s troop increase in Afghanistan. Nearly $34 billion would go to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest would go to foreign aid, compensation to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and domestic disaster aid. Most of the cost of that bill isn’t offset. 

Democrats are also considering skipping the annual budget resolution, which sets spending levels for next year and lays out the majority’s fiscal policy for several years beyond, because they may not have the votes to pass one. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that the size of deficits — projected by the Congressional Budget Office to average nearly $1 trillion this decade — and the looming midterm election will make it difficult to pass a budget. Centrists, wary about voting for a document that lays out large deficits, have pressed leaders to include cuts to domestic discretionary spending in any budget proposal.

House Republicans welcomed Obama’s call for more power to cut spending, but they said it rings “hollow” when considering Democrats’ other moves. 

“At a time when Democrats are abdicating their duty to pass a federal budget, in a year when very few observers inside and outside the Capitol believe an appropriations bill will arrive at the president’s desk before Election Day, this kind of budget authority from the president rings a little hollow, to say the least,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.).

Giving the president line-item veto power likely wouldn’t lead to huge savings, according to a nonpartisan congressional study.

Clinton used the authority to cut $355 million in spending for 1998 out of a $1.7 trillion federal budget before the Supreme Court struck down the law, according to the 2005 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.

“[T]he experience with the item veto, both conceptually and in actual practice, suggests that the amounts that might be saved by a presidential item veto could be relatively small, in the range of perhaps $1 [billion] to $2 billion a year,” the report said.

Since an expedited rescission would be subject to congressional review, it would be a weaker budget tool than a line-item veto, according to a 2009 CRS report.

The White House argued Monday that expedited rescissions would be among several moves the president would make to cut deficits. Obama has signed into law a pay-as-you-go measure requiring that new tax cuts or entitlement spending be paid for; proposed a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending; and sought to crack down on improper entitlement payments made as a result of fraud, waste or abuse, Orszag said.

Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats and a group of Senate deficit hawks led by Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have pushed recently for similar rescission powers.

Blue Dogs, whose votes are key to moving ahead with the contentious bills this week and the rest of Obama’s agenda this Congress, called Obama’s proposal a “significant step.”

“We have a responsibility to work together to see that this important legislation ultimately reaches the president’s desk,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a Blue Dog Coalition co-chairman.

Matheson pushed both sides to do more than “talking tough” about spending cuts.

“It’s where the rubber meets the road that members on both sides of the aisle have fallen short,” Matheson said.

-- This article was updated at 7:29 p.m.