Power To The President Courtesy Of The Gop

The $287 million President Clinton saved on Oct. 6 by vetoing 38 military-construction projects is a mere rounding error in a $1.7 trillion budget. But the first-ever use of a Presidential line-item veto on spending is not about dollars. It's about power--a dramatic shift in power from Capitol Hill to the White House.

If this new Presidential weapon survives a possible Supreme Court test, the President's staff--particularly the Office of Management & Budget--could have final say on virtually all spending projects. That's sure to give Clinton more leverage to win concessions from Congress on issues that transcend budget policy. For example, in an era of divided government, a hamstrung President can win support for his programs by making a lawmaker's pet project a bargaining chip. "This has very subtly but very significantly changed the way Washington works," says federal budget analyst Stanley E. Collender of consulting firm Burson-Marsteller.

THRILLED. That's not exactly the outcome envisioned by Republicans, who pushed through the line-item veto in 1996 after 15 years of trying. The intent was to give GOP Presidents the means to rein in a profligate Democratic Congress. Still, budget hawks are thrilled that the weapon has finally been used. "It could be valuable to save taxpayers money," says Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a confidant of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "It says to Republican leaders, `You don't get to cheat just because you're a committee chairman."'

Clinton, who used the line-item veto when he was governor of Arkansas, will wield his new power to keep the barons of Capitol Hill off balance. Indeed, the threat of the veto may be more potent than the action itself. "It's essential to keep [lawmakers] guessing," says one White House budgeteer.

To deflect charges that his real motive is to punish enemies or barter for his own initiatives, Clinton outlined a series of "objective criteria" for his actions. To demonstrate evenhandedness, he nicked Democrats and Republicans alike. While about two-thirds of his veto targets were in GOP districts, the President zapped home-state projects of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Senate Appropriations Committee titan Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) But it was no accident that he spared the home state of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whom he needs to cut future bipartisan deals.

The message: The White House, not Congress, will set spending priorities. "If somebody on the Hill really wants to get a project, the best tactic is to get it incorporated into the President's budget," says Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's ex-Chief of Staff and former head of the OMB. Moreover, the veto will stop Cabinet secretaries from negotiating backdoor spending accords with friendly lawmakers. "You can't cut your deals with the departments anymore and expect it to be a done deal," says a Hill budget veteran.

Gene Sperling, director of the President's National Economic Council, predicts that Clinton's new power will exert a "deterrent effect" on Hill spending. That will soon be tested as Congress sends Clinton massive spending bills that are traditional favorites of congressional porkmeisters: transportation, energy and water projects, and weapons.

Lawmakers will watch closely to see if Clinton uses his new veto to zap programs out of fiscal prudence or power politics. Either way, the GOP must wonder why it ever gave the Prez a new gun to use against it.