Senate Holds Hearings on Bush's Use of Signing Statements

The White House on Tuesday defended President Bush's frequent use of special statements that claim authority to limit the effects of bills he signs, saying the statements help him uphold the Constitution and defend national security.

Senators weren't so sure.

"It's a challenge to the plain language of the Constitution," said Arlen Specter, a Republican whose Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on the issue. "There is a sense that the president has taken signing statements far beyond the customary purview."

At the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow said, "There's this notion that the president is committing acts of civil disobedience, and he's not. It's important for the president at least to express reservations about the constitutionality of certain provisions."

The bill-signing statements say Bush reserves a right to revise, interpret or disregard measures on national security and constitutional grounds. Some 110 statements have challenged about 750 statutes passed by Congress, according to numbers combined from White House and the Senate committee. They include documents revising or disregarding parts of legislation to ban torture of detainees and to renew the Patriot Act.

Snow said presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton have issued such statements.

"The president has done the same thing that his predecessors have," he told reporters. "Presidents generally had the same concerns about defending the presidential prerogatives when it comes to national security."

In addition to Specter's objections, Democrats called the signing statements an example of the administration trying to expand executive power.

"I believe that this new use of signing statements is a means to undermine and weaken the law," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. "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."

Defending Bush, a Justice Department lawyer said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made it prudent for the president to protect his powers with signing statements more than did his predecessors.

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

"Congress has been more active, the president has been more active," she added. "The separation of powers is working when we have this kind of dispute."

The exchange came during a midterm election year in which Specter, some fellow Republicans and many Democrats are highlighting concerns about the administration's use of executive power. Specter's personal list includes Bush's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, the administration's checking of phone records and the sending of officials to hearings but saying they cannot answer lawmakers' questions on national security grounds.

The session also was aimed at countering any influence Bush's signing statements may have on court decisions regarding the new laws. Courts can be expected to look to the legislature for intent, not the executive, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., a former state judge.

"The president is entitled to express his opinion. It's the courts that determine what the law is," he said. "I don't know why the issue of presidents issuing signing statements is controversial at all."

Specter and his allies maintain that Bush is trying an end-run around the veto process. In his presidency's sixth year, Bush has yet to issue a single veto, which could be overridden with a two-thirds majority in each house.

"The president is not required to," Boardman said.

"Of course he's not if he signs the bill," Specter snapped back.

Other presidents have used signing statements for administrative reasons, such as instructing an agency how to put a certain law into effect. They usually are inserted quietly into the federal record.

[Source: The Associated Press, Washington, 27Jun06]

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