WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton sidestepped yesterday what could have been an early and enervating clash with Congress by agreeing to compromise on new budget-cutting powers for the chief executive.
Mr. Clinton's comments at a press conference in Little Rock, Ark., signaled he would be willing to accept less than the "line-item veto" authority he called for during his election campaign.
But the broader message was that the president-elect has decided not to waste valuable time and political capital on a power struggle with Congress that can only hinder his ability to win support for his higher legislative priorities.
"I don't think he's necessarily given up on this, but he's made it clear that his first emphasis and ours should be on the economy," said Diane Dewhirst, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
Mr. Mitchell and other Democratic congressional leaders had a dinner meeting with Mr. Clinton on Sunday night and participated in yesterday's press conference.
At issue is the president's ability to reject certain parts of a spending bill he dislikes without vetoing the entire measure, most of which he may support.
Most governors, including Maryland's, have some version of that power. But Congress, which jealously guards its absolute power of the purse, has never been willing to give presidents similar authority.
During the press conference, Mr. Clinton embraced a compromise proposal first aired Friday by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who also attended the Little Rock sessions.
Under the compromise, Congress could vote to override a veto of a spending item in a bill by a simple majority of both houses, instead of having to muster the two-thirds majority that is required now.
"I thought the speaker made an intriguing suggestion for a line-item veto which is almost -- functionally almost identical to the way the line item veto works in this state," the Arkansas governor told reporters.
"That is, I can line-item veto a bill here and the legislature can override it with a majority vote, but they have to do it by a separate vote, so that there is a great deal of focus on the issue at hand and you can't just bury something of questionable merit in a big, omnibus bill. I think that is at least a good place for us to begin discussion."
It's not clear whether Mr. Foley's proposal could pass the Senate, where opposition is especially strong.
But Mr. Mitchell said yesterday that he hopes that with greater cooperation between the president and Congress "matters of process like this will assume a lesser significance than now appears to be the case."
President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan argued strongly for a line-item veto that would require Congress to muster a two-thirds majority in order to reinstate a vetoed item. Mr. Clinton also backed that proposal during his presidential campaign.
Mr. Foley has proposed instead to strengthen the president's current power to refuse to provide the funds for a spending item after the appropriation has been signed into law.
This so-called recision authority doesn't amount to much now.
A majority of the members of Congress have to vote in favor of the president's proposed cuts, and there's no requirement that they must be acted upon. Mr. Bush proposed nearly $5 billion worth of recisions last spring that were virtually ignored by the legislators, who put together their own package.
Mr. Foley suggested a change that would require the legislators to vote promptly on a president's proposed recisions to block them.
"The line item veto I oppose because that lets the president sustain a recision with one-third of one body," Mr. Foley said Friday. "That's not majority rule. But I do favor the president being able to identify and strike out of any appropriations bill any line item as long as we can restore it if we're willing to do so . . . with a majority in both houses."
Similar but weaker legislation passed the House overwhelmingly in October only to die in the Senate.