Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Watchdog group sues to reverse spending-cut bill

Watchdog group sues to reverse spending-cut bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional watchdog group filed a suit on Tuesday in federal court challenging the constitutionality of a $39 billion spending-cut law that passed each chamber of Congress in different forms.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president signs into law only bills that are passed in identical form by both chambers.

"We have filed a lawsuit against the Bush administration for trying to sign into law something that is unconstitutional," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.

In early February, President George W. Bush signed the controversial budget bill into law, carrying out conservative Republicans' campaign to cut domestic programs including federal health care for the poor and elderly.

The legislation passed the Senate in December only after Vice President Dick Cheney, in his role as president of the Senate, cast a rare tie-breaking vote. Passage in the House of Representatives was extremely close too.

At issue is a change written into the legislation by a Senate clerk after it passed the Senate and before it reached the House. The change involved the length of Medicare payments for the rental of medical equipment such as oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and hospital beds.

The Senate bill set those payments at 13 months. But by the time it reached the House, the provision was rewritten to 36 months. The president signed the Senate's version into law.

Shortly after Bush signed the bill, the Senate passed legislation that Republican leaders hoped would clear up the confusion. The legislative fix stated that the version signed by Bush reflected "the intent of the Congress in enacting the bill into law." The House never took up that bill.

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said, "We believe that the law is constitutional and that this is yet another political attempt by the Democrats to stop us from cutting spending."

Bonjean was responding to a question on why congressional leaders allowed the legislation to be sent to the White House if they knew there was a technical problem.

In its lawsuit, Public Citizen, which opposed many of the provisions of the spending-cut bill, asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to overturn the entire law.

If a court were to rule in Public Citizen's favor, it would be difficult for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass a new spending-cut bill so close to November congressional elections.