The Senate, voluntarily ceding part of its authority over the national purse, followed the lead of the House of Representatives and voted on Thursday night in favour of the Line-Item Veto Bill, which gives the President the authority to trim spending from bills passed in the two chambers of Congress without scrapping an entire bill. The presidential veto may only be overridden, in turn, by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
President Clinton was "delighted", according to a White House spokesman, but impatient for Congress to conclude the legislative fine-tuning of the bill so he could sign it and "go to work cutting the budget".
Mr Clinton might well have been delighted, for successive American presidents since Ulysses S Grant in 1876 had sought unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to pass such a bill.
Why did Congress approve it now? First, because the bill was part of the Republicans' manifesto, their "Contract with America", which swept them to victory in November's elections. Balancing the federal budget is the Republicans' holy grail, and the presidential line-item veto, they believe, will contribute towards that goal. Second, the Republicans are gambling that their candidate will win next year's presidential election.
The target of the bill, in Washington parlance, is pork. Members of congress have long smuggled pet projects - "pork-barrel" programmes - into spending bills with the purpose of bringing benefits to the particular states they represent. Senators and members of the House of Representatives thus have been able to use their votes to bargain, as in: "I'll give you my vote if you agree to add a line to the bill financing a 200-mile highway in my state.'' During the Bush administration, a senator from North Dakota managed to raise federal funds to build a museum in his state in honour of a band-leader called Lawrence Welk.
Last year, Citizens Against Government Waste, a civic watchdog, released its 1993 Congressional Pig Book. While it included nothing as extravagant as a $200,000 lavatory once ordered for the Defense Department, it did contain an entry for $34.6m towards research into the screw worm, a pest eradicated from the United States some years before.
The most voluble opponent of the line-item veto bill in Congress this week was Senator Robert Byrd, who objected out of principle, he said, but has long been identified as the pork barrel's congressional grand master. Citizens Against Government Waste awarded him their "lifetime achievement award" last year "for past successes in rewarding the voters back home". Senator Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was also given the "King of the Road" award for having secured $104m in highway pork, "just in case there was some corner of the state which remains unpaved".Reuse content