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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hearing slams Bush tactic; Senators, scholars denounce his use of 'signing statements'

(06-28) 04:00 PDT Washington -- A bipartisan group of senators and scholars denounced President Bush on Tuesday for using scores of so-called signing statements to reserve the right to ignore or reinterpret provisions of legislation that he has signed into law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing marked the latest effort by committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and panel Democrats to try to reclaim authority they say the president has usurped as he has expanded the power of the executive branch.

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And it came on the same day Bush gave a speech pushing for still more power, in the form of a line-item veto that would allow him to strike spending and tax provisions from legislation without vetoing the entire bill.

A lawyer for the administration, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michelle Boardman, testified that Bush has shown Congress respect by using signing statements instead of vetoes.

"Respect for the legislative branch is not shown through (making a) veto," Boardman argued. "Respect for the legislative branch, when we have a well-crafted bill, the majority of which is constitutional, is shown when the president chooses to construe a particular statement in keeping with the Constitution, as opposed to defeating an entire bill that would serve the nation."

Other presidents have used signing statements to clarify their interpretation of laws, but no president has used such statements instead of ever using the actual veto authority spelled out in the Constitution, according to Harvard University law Professor Charles Ogletree, who is serving on a newly formed American Bar Association task force examining Bush's signing statements. Bush has never used his veto power during his years as president.

Bush's statements have challenged a congressional ban on torture, a request for data on the administration of the Patriot Act, even a legislative demand for suggestions on the digital mapping of coastal resources.

"There is a sense that the president has taken the signing statements far beyond the customary purviews," Specter told Boardman. "There's a real issue here as to whether the president may, in effect, cherry-pick the provisions he likes and exclude the ones he doesn't like."

Democrats were more blunt, blasting such statements, estimated to number more than 750 on 110 laws, more than all the statements issued by all the nation's other presidents combined.

"I believe that this new use of signing statements is a means to undermine and weaken the law," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "If the president is going to have the power to nullify all or part of a statute, it should only be through veto authority that the president has authorized and can reject -- rather than through a unilateral action taken outside the structures of our democracy."

Boardman countered that presidents since James Monroe have issued statements of interpretation to accompany laws, and every president since Dwight Eisenhower has issued statements reserving the right not to execute sections of laws that may contradict the Constitution.

By her accounting, Bush has issued such statements on 110 laws, compared with 80 from Bill Clinton, as many as 105 from Ronald Reagan and 147 from George H.W. Bush in a single term. But Bush has issued multiple statements on many of those laws for a total of 750, while it was unclear how many statements the other presidents had issued.

"Even if there has been a modest increase, let me just suggest that it be viewed in light of current events and Congress' response to those events," she said. "The significance of legislation affecting national security has increased markedly since Sept. 11."

Chronicle news services contributed to this report.

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