President Clinton dodged a political storm Tuesday by using his new line-item veto powers to cut a modest $144 million in programs from a $247.7 billion defense spending bill.
Clinton cut just 13 of the more than 750 programs lawmakers added to the Defense Department’s budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, a fraction of what members on both sides of the aisle had feared he would pare.
At a news conference in Brazil on Tuesday, Clinton agreed that his vetoes were “quite restrained.”
The lightness of his pen surprised even congressional critics who complained bitterly last week when Clinton struck 38 items totaling more than $280 million from a military construction bill.
“It’s a modest list (of vetoes) this week, and considerably more consistent with the spirit of the line-item veto than his initial vetoes” in the military construction bill, said John Raffetto, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Stevens was so perturbed by last week’s vetoes that he called a committee hearing to warn the president that Congress stood ready to revoke his newfound line-item veto power if he persisted in wielding a heavy pen.
That warning apparently hit its target in the White House. Knowing he still needs Congress’ good will to enact “fast track” trade legislation and other presidential initiatives, Clinton chose caution in trimming the defense bill.
“I thought it was appropriate,” the president said in Brazil. “I know that a lot of members who voted for the line-item veto in Congress now wonder whether they did the right thing, now that I’m exercising it. But I’d like to remind you that again I have deferred in great measure to Congress.”
House and Senate members, eager to please voters back home, had inserted hundreds of projects in the defense bill.
Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a defense hawk but strident critic of defense pork, pleaded with Clinton to use his new veto authority to eliminate $1.5 billion for 110 items in the defense bill. Only six of those items were on the president’s list Tuesday.
“The president has clearly taken a hike and missed an opportunity to eliminate billions of dollars in low-priority, unnecessary and wasteful spending from the defense budget,” the Arizona Republican said.
Congress passed the line-item veto bill about a year-and-a-half ago, but it took effect only last January. It’s all but certain that the line-item vetoes will be challenged in court as an unconstitutional usurping of Congress’ power.
Clinton predicted in Brazil that he may use the line item veto less in future years than he has in 1997.
“I’m hoping that in the years ahead I won’t be using it as much and future presidents won’t use it as much because it will lead to a different kind of negotiation in the budgeting process,” Clinton said. “But I think what I did today was responsible and quite restrained.”
Liesl Heeter, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based group that analyzes the defense budget, said use of the new veto will probably always lead to political battles with lawmakers, whose districts count on pork from the Pentagon.
“The law is a political tool,” she said. “Clinton has every incentive not to use it very much. I think he played his cards less vigorously than he could have.”