Giuliani: Obey the Constitution. Huckabee: Ignore Congress

The Republican candidates debate what we used to call checks and balances.

Published October 10, 2007 11:54AM (EDT)

After six years spent watching the Bush administration treat the Constitution like an option to be considered only when it's convenient, we nearly stood up and cheered as we watched Rudy Giuliani school Chris Matthews and Mitt Romney on the subject of checks and balances during Tuesday's GOP presidential debate.

After Bill Clinton used the line-item veto in 1996 to strike a Medicaid provision that benefited New York, Giuliani and a coalition of hospitals and unions filed suit, asking a federal court to declare the line-tem veto unconstitutional. In 1998, the Supreme Court did just that, holding 6-3 that the veto short-circuited the constitutional requirement that legislation be approved by both houses of Congress.

When Romney attacked Giuliani Tuesday for bringing the case, Matthews asked Romney whether he "believed" that the line-item veto was constitutional. Romney seemed to say that he thought it was, at least in the incarnations of it that have been proposed by the president and Sen. Elizabeth Dole. "I'm in favor of the line-item veto to make sure that the president is able to help get out pork and waste," Romney said.

Giuliani's appropriately sneering response: "You can't fool all of the people all of the time. The line-item veto is unconstitutional. You don't get to believe about it; the Supreme Court has ruled on it."

So that's the reassuring moment from Tuesday's debate in Michigan. The not-so-reassuring moment? That one came courtesy of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Matthews asked Romney whether a president would need congressional approval before taking "military action against Iran's nuclear facilities." Romney said a president would need to "sit down with your attorneys" to figure out the right course. Rep. Duncan Hunter said the answer depended on the circumstances: A president could act on his own "if the target is fleeting," but otherwise "you certainly want to go to Congress, as we did in Iraq, and get the approval of Congress." Ron Paul said it was crazy to talk about talking with lawyers: "Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war."

Then came Huckabee. His answer: A president should ask Congress for approval if he has the "luxury" of time to do so -- but then he can do whatever he wants no matter what Congress says.

From the transcript:

Matthews: Gov. Huckabee, same question. Do you need Congress to approve such an action?

Huckabee: A president has to [do] whatever is necessary to protect the American people. If we think Iran is building nuclear capacity that could be used against us in any way, including selling some of the nuclear capacity to some other terrorist group, then, yes, we have a right ...

Matthews: Without going to Congress?

Huckabee: And I would do it in a heartbeat.

Matthews: Without going to Congress?

Huckabee: Well, if it's necessary to get it done because it's actionable right now, yes. If you have the time and the luxury of going to Congress, that's always better. But, Chris, the most important single thing is to make sure ...

Matthews: And if Congress says no, what do you do? ... If Congress says no, what do you do, Governor?

Huckabee: You do what's best for the American people and you suffer the consequences. But what you don't do is what you never do, is let the American people one day get hit with a nuclear device because you had politics going on in Washington, instead of the protection of the American people first.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney Rudy Giuliani War Room