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Senate Votes 1st Override of Clinton Line-Item Vetoes

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate carried out the first congressional reversal of President Clinton’s controversial line-item veto power Wednesday, voting overwhelmingly to restore 38 military construction projects eliminated by the White House last fall.

The expanded veto authority, which allows the president to strike individual items in tax and spending bills, was handed to the White House by Congress in 1996. But it is now on the ropes, sustaining blows from all quarters.

A U.S. District Court ruling earlier this month called it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter. And, now that they have had a taste of the new presidential power, some lawmakers are having misgivings.

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The 78-20 Senate vote follows similar action in the House in recent weeks to restore $287 million in spending that Clinton had pared from a $9.2-billion military construction bill last October.

The projects, scattered throughout two dozen states, include four in California: a $10.1-million operations facility at Coronado Naval Amphibious Base in San Diego County, a $6.7-million Marine Corps Reserve Center project in Pasadena and $11.2 million for two projects at the Army’s Fort Irwin in San Bernardino County.

Senate debate on the override centered as much on the appropriateness of the line-item veto as on the merits of the military projects themselves.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who vehemently opposed the line-item veto, said that those who handed the president the new power ought to suffer without their projects.

“John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the people who wrote the Constitution would be whirling in their graves if they knew we passed this legislation,” Bumpers said.

But others said the override showed that the line-item veto had not fundamentally altered the give and take between the legislative and executive branches.

By allowing the president to pick and choose what he will support in a massive bill, critics said, the line-item veto sways the balance of power toward the White House.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that the law is an “unauthorized surrender to the president of an inherently legislative function, namely, the authority to permanently shape laws and package legislation.”

The White House shrugged off the congressional reversal Wednesday and said that Clinton reserves the right to use his line-item authority again while the Supreme Court reviews the law.

“The president continues to believe that the law can be an effective and useful tool for reducing unnecessary spending,” said White House spokesman Barry Toiv. “We believe it will ultimately be ruled constitutional.”

Congress has mustered the two-thirds support needed to override a presidential veto only one other time since Clinton took office, reinstating a 1995 law to restrict shareholder lawsuits. The president has used his veto pen 20 times. He has struck individual line items in 11 instances.

In the case of the military projects, the White House did not help its position when it acknowledged that some of the projects had been vetoed by mistake.

In a letter to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Franklin D. Raines, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, conceded that some projects were inadvertently eliminated. Raines said that the administration would work to restore some of the projects but would “strongly oppose” a complete reversal of the president’s line-item vetoes.

When talks broke down over which projects to jettison, lawmakers proceeded with their override effort.

The military projects themselves--which ranged from a runway extension at a Florida air base to expanded hangars for Navy airplanes in Maryland--were touted as essential by home-state lawmakers, although they were not at the top of the Pentagon’s priority list.

“There are numerous instances where projects are added that cannot be justified on a military basis,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who nonetheless determined that the refurbishment of aging facilities at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which Clinton had stricken from the bill, was essential.

“If we permit the president’s veto to stand, we would endanger our nation’s security interests,” Bingaman said.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said that his colleagues were being shortsighted by pushing for “self-serving pork-barrel spending” when the military is straining to perform more missions with less resources.

“Wasting scarce defense resources on pork-barrel projects is a disservice to the men and women who serve in the military and is potentially detrimental to our national security,” said McCain, who singled out for criticism Ft. Irwin’s $8.5-million facility for washing military vehicles, which Clinton also had struck from the military spending legislation.

“An $8.5-million carwash,” McCain said.

Actually, it is a 24-bank tank wash that Army officials say will scrub California desert sand off tanks and other military vehicles. The current wash stations, according to Army officials, leave a residue that causes violations of the Clean Water Act.

“This is how the system is supposed to work--things are cut, then looked at and reintroduced,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego), whose district includes one of the projects. “People should be celebrating.”


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