The rise of the line-item veto may soon effect a profound change in the balance of power between the Oval Office and the legislative chambers of Capitol Hill.
Presidents of both parties have long sought to wield such a budget-paring knife. Now Democrat Bill Clinton will be the first to grasp it: A line-item veto law goes into effect Jan. 1, following its passage by the GOP-led Congress last year.
Republican lawmakers are watching closely to see how Clinton intends to use his new tool. In fact, some party leaders are already warning Clinton that they believe he's interpreting line-item veto power too broadly.
Last week, a group of top congressional Republicans fired off a letter to the White House. The missive complained that administration officials have said the president would have used a line-item veto to kill everything from national speed limit legislation to parts of the welfare-reform bill.
Such statements "indicate an apparent lack of clear understanding about the reach and proper application of the line item veto authority," said the letter, which was signed by House Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon (R) of New York and Senate Budget Committee head Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, among others.
Instead, line-item veto authority is "narrowly proscribed" to bits of discretionary spending, and tax breaks that benefit only a few people or corporations, said the letter.
In other words, it's a scalpel, not a broadax.
The advent of the line-item veto comes at a time of ferment in the budget process. In a few weeks, the administration will submit its broad budget outline, and the annual White House-Congress fiscal wrangle will begin. Both sides say they want to balance the budget in seven years. Deficit estimates on both sides are getting closer. Is this the year the national budget process finally resembles smooth-running machinery, instead of a train wreck?
Maybe. But "Congress, White House in Budget Clash" is an evergreen news story. And the line-item veto, for one thing, could exacerbate tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government, rather than ease them.
That's because of the way it works. Whatever its merits as a tool of prudence, the veto's more profound effect might be to boost the leverage the White House can exert on members of Congress.