Gregg, DeMint plan to revive presidential line-item veto bid

A conservative perennial is back in season in the Senate, as GOP Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) plan a bid to restore the presidential line-item veto as part of the lobbying and ethics bill on the floor this week.

While Democrats underline their commitment to reform by touting gift and travel bans, Gregg and DeMint aim to repair their party’s bruised reputation for fiscal responsibility by billing line-item as a means to clamp down on earmarks. The House last year passed a line-item measure similar to the Senate amendment with 35 Democratic votes, but lingering concerns about the constitutionality of line-item make this week’s effort an uphill battle. 

“The big mistake Republicans made is, we did not change the system that was handed to us and it just got out of control,” DeMint said in an interview, describing the climate that led to the GOP’s Election Day thumping. He predicted that some Republican appropriators would support line-item despite the public dust-up between Senate conservatives and members of the spending panel late last year. “The problem is not just the appropriators; it’s the system,” the senator added.

“Line-item is the title being put on this, but what it amounts to is a targeted rescission, where items in big bills that are buried there can be brought into the light of day,” Gregg said in an interview.

The latest Senate line-item plan would resemble a measure that Gregg, the Budget Committee’s ranking Republican, passed out of committee last year during his chairmanship. That bill would prevent money from rescinded projects from being used as offsets for new spending, allowing the president to propose cancellation of certain spending projects and tax benefits that would be bundled in up to four annual packages.

Congress would vote on those line-item rescissions as a group, which DeMint said would give cover to lawmakers concerned about sparking political retaliation or casting a vote against their state’s perceived interests. Giving Congress the ultimate say on cancelled projects also is intended to avoid constitutional challenges, such as the 1998 court ruling that struck down former President Clinton’s line-item authority.

DeMint compared the new line-item structure to the congressionally mandated Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which was designed to avert objections through consideration of closures as a group. Though DeMint was one of only eight senators to vote against last year’s lobbying and ethics bill, he left the door open to supporting this year’s version.

“As long as we can get it so we’re not indicted for somebody leaving a ball cap in an office,” DeMint said. The bill already provides a means for striking “out of scope” provisions that show up in conference reports without approval from either chamber, and DeMint said he is readying several other earmark-reform amendments for possible submission this week.

President Bush consistently has prioritized the line-item veto, including it in several budget requests and asking for the authority anew in a speech last week focused on eliminating wasteful spending. White House budget chief Rob Portman, a close ally of DeMint’s since their years together in the House, has also worked the Hill promoting the line-item bill since his appointment last year.

Other line-item fans include Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), who issued his own plan during his 2004 presidential run.

Yet the court ruling against line-item authority is just one potential obstacle to passage this week. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the new Budget Committee chairman, called line-item authority “kind of an empty suit” in September and cited a Congressional Budget Office report last year that found previous rescission efforts had proven largely ineffective in controlling the deficit.

Gregg pointed out that the amendment would sunset line-item authority in four years, meaning that Democrats who would oppose giving Bush the power to strike projects would also deprive the next White House occupant, Republican or Democrat. “They’re assuming a Republican is going to be president. We don’t know who the president is going to be,” he said.