WASHINGTON -- Nullifying a historic experiment aimed at cutting budget deficits, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional yesterday the 2-year-old line-item veto law that allowed the president to delete individual items from spending and tax bills he has already signed into law.
The law, long advocated by presidents but used only by one -- Clinton -- fell by a 6-3 vote.
The court said the law ran counter to the procedure laid down in the Constitution for enacting laws. Under that procedure, Congress must present legislation to the president, who must approve or veto the entire bill.
"The line-item veto act authorizes the president to effect the repeal of laws, for his own policy reasons, without observing the procedures set out" in the Constitution, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
"The fact that Congress intended such a result is of no moment."
If Congress wants to give the president a new role in lawmaking, Stevens wrote, "such change must come not by legislation but through" an amendment to the Constitution.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a brief separate opinion, lectured Congress for failing to "restrain persistent excessive spending" but added: "Failure of political will does not justify unconstitutional remedies."
Clinton used the veto power 82 times, resulting in savings that the White House has estimated at more than $1 billion.
The president, speaking from China, expressed disappointment.
"The decision is a defeat for all Americans," he said. "It deprives the president of a valuable tool for eliminating waste in the federal budget and for enlivening the public debate over how to make the best use of public funds."
The line-item veto was enacted two years ago as one of the key items in the Republican-led Congress' "Contract With America."
It was intended to help lower budget deficits by shifting to the president the politically delicate task of killing specific spending items or tax benefits that Congress had embraced, often at the urging of lawmakers whose districts those items benefited.
Yesterday, with their numbers dwindling, Congress' most ardent supporters of the line-item veto vowed to enact a new version that could pass constitutional muster.
Sen. Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican, lamented that yesterday's ruling will encourage Congress to return to the practice of larding up spending bills with wasteful "pork-barrel" spending.
"The Supreme Court has resurrected a pig that we thought was dead," Coats declared.
But in general, response on Capitol Hill yesterday was remarkably subdued, given that the line-item veto had been a leading priority of the Republican Congress that took office in 1995.
That year, the line-item veto passed both houses overwhelmingly. At the time, the government was running budget deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and Republicans had swept to power pledging to restore the nation's fiscal health.
Now, with a budget surplus looming, the political muscle that backed the line-item veto has shrunk. Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican and former supporter, said enthusiasm has waned since Clinton first wielded the line-item veto last year. Lawmakers overrode his vetoes to restore 38 military construction projects.
"I was a proponent," Bennett said. "I campaigned for it vigorously. But when I saw the way President Clinton abused the line-item veto, I ate crow publicly."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who has been the line-item veto's fiercest opponent, said yesterday: "I have had senators, particularly Republican senators, come to me to say: 'You were right. If we have that fight ever again, count me on your side.' "
But the measure's leading advocates in the Senate -- Coats and John McCain, an Arizona Republican -- remained hopeful. Within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, the two introduced a new measure that they said would be constitutional.
Under this version, instead of presenting the president with sweeping spending bills, Congress would pass a separate bill for each item of spending. The president could then sift through thousands of tiny spending bills and veto those he deemed unnecessary.
But there seemed to be little enthusiasm for the cause.
"You wouldn't have enough time all year to do [the equivalent of] one bill," said Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Alternatively, McCain and Coats said, a constitutional amendment to grant the president line-item veto power is possible but unlikely to pass. Constitutional amendments require the support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate, as well as three-fourths of the states.
The day belonged to the handful of lawmakers who all along had proclaimed the line-item veto unconstitutional. Byrd, considered a constitutional authority, proclaimed that a battle that began during Ulysses S. Grant's administration had finally ended.