Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has proposed a tough line-item veto to slash pork-barrel spending that has a good chance of being enacted this year and passing constitutional muster.

Under increasing fire from conservative critics for his failure to veto any spending bill, especially those stuffed with tens of billions of dollars in pork, Bush has heard the message from his party's base. They want to curb the cost and size of government, and the place to start is in the heavily larded appropriations bills that have squandered our tax dollars as never before.

With his job-approval polls showing a dangerous erosion of support in his party's base, Bush is aggressively following through on his State of the Union pledge to seek line-item-veto-type legislation that would give him the authority to carve the fat out of future bills, but avoids the constitutional objections that led the Supreme Court to strike down a previous line-item law in 1998.

At least 11 presidents, from Ulysses Grant to Bill Clinton, have sought the line-item veto, a waste-cutting tool routinely used by 43 of the 50 state governors. But when the high court reviewed the bill that the Republican-run Congress passed in the late 1990s, it didn't like what it saw.

The Constitution says only Congress has the power of the purse, and the line-item bill unconstitutionally "gave the president the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statutes," the court ruled.

Bush seeks to avoid that problem with a fast-track legislative procedure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on any pork-barrel spending the president proposes to rescind. It's a proposal that has won the support of Democratic and Republican leaders in the past, and the White House thinks it will again.

In a formal message to Congress last week, Bush said his line-item plan would give him "the authority to strip special spending and earmarks out of a bill, and then send them back to Congress for an up-or-down vote."

These lawmakers, led by Congressman Paul Ryan, an up-and-coming GOP leader from Wisconsin, have introduced the president's proposal (or versions of it). At last count, his bill had 46 original co-sponsors.

"This legislative line-item veto passes constitutional muster and serves as a powerful tool to target questionable earmarks and to give Congress the chance to judge them on their own merits, rather than as part of a larger spending bill," Ryan said.

At the same time, Bush's initiative has helped showcase the Pork Barrel Reduction Act in the Senate, sponsored by two Republican waste fighters, John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Their bill would also impose new restrictions to ban earmarks as part of a broader budget-reform effort.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.