The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down as unconstitutional the line-item veto law that let the president cancel specific items in tax and spending measures.
The 6-3 decision said the law violates the part of the Constitution requiring every bill to be presented to the president for his approval or veto.The court said the Constitution does not allow for what, in effect, are partial vetoes.
That type of line-item veto can be authorized only through a constitutional amendment, the justices said. The law was challenged by New York City and an Idaho potato growers' group after provisions they sought were vetoed by President Clinton.
Clinton was the first president to exercise a line-item veto, an authority sought by nearly every president this century as a tool to limit pork-barrel spending. Congress voted in 1996 to give the president such authority, and Clinton used the veto 82 times last year.
A federal judge ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional in February, saying Congress could not delegate such authority to the president.
The line-item veto law is the only major provision of the 1994 House Republican "Contract with America" campaign manifesto that Clinton endorsed.
The law let the president sign a bill and within five days go back to reject specific spending items or tax breaks in it. Congress then could reinstate the item by passing a separate bill.
Opponents of the line-item veto argued that once a law is signed by the president, it can be changed only in the way prescribed by the Constitution for enacting a law - a congressional vote followed by the president's signature. Once the president has exercised a line-item veto, they contended, the final law would not be the same as the measure approved by Congress.
The Clinton administration contended a line-item veto would not actually repeal part of a law but would be a presidential exercise of spending authority delegated by Congress.
Thursay, the Supreme Court said the administration and the veto law's backers in Congress were wrong.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens cited the "profound importance" of the issue and almost reluctantly concluded that "the procedures authorized by the line-item veto act are not authorized by the Constitution."
"If there is to be a new procedure in which the president will play a different role in determining the text of what may become a law, such change must come not by legislation but through the amendment procedures set forth in Article V of the Constitution," Stevens said.
He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen G. Breyer dissented, with Scalia emphasizing his disagreement by taking the unusual step of reading for nine minutes in court from his dissenting opinion.
"The title of the Line Item Veto Act, which was perhaps designed to simplify for public comprehension, or perhaps merely to comply with the terms of a campaign pledge, has succeeded in faking out the Supreme Court," Scalia said. "The president's action it authorizes in fact is not a line-item veto."
One of the disputes began when New York City, a hospital and two hospital associations sued to restore a provision that would have given New York state preferential treatment in receiving federal matching funds under the Medicaid program.
In the other, the Snake River Potato Growers and an officer of the Idaho group sued over Clinton's veto of a tax measure that would have allowed agricultural processors to defer capital-gains taxes when they sell such facilities to farmers' cooperatives.
In ruling the line-item veto law unconstitutional last February, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said it amounted to a surrender by Congress of an "inherently legislative function" to the president. Once a bill becomes law, the president's sole duty is to carry it out, the judge said.
Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.