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The fate of a $2 million appropriation destined for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo is becoming an example of the new clout seized by the unelected elite as the president uses his new line-item veto powers.

The money -- desperately needed for gallery repairs -- is on the White House chopping block and may fall victim to what is emerging as a very haphazard and shadowy process.

Before President Clinton decides to kill the gallery's appropriation, it must survive review by Andrew Cuomo, secretary of housing and urban development.

Cuomo wasn't elected by anybody to anything. The son of former Gov. Cuomo and son-in-law of Ethel Kennedy, Cuomo is an appointee of the president's.

Yet if Cuomo strongly urges Clinton to kill it, he probably will.

The office of Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., learned the appropriation is in danger last week when Cuomo's HUD asked for a memo justifying the the Republican's legislation.

If the $2 million falls to the cutting-room floor, no one will ever really know why. All the public gets with the Clinton line-item message is White House boilerplate, the majority of which turns out to be malarkey.

The exact process by which the gallery's appropriation may die is as secret as the means by which the $2 million found its way into the HUD appropriations bill. Papers exchanged between cabinet members and the president are secret.

Earlier, an inquiry sent to D'Amato's office by Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services, was the first indication that up to $2.6 billion in federal Medicaid reimbursement to the state was endangered.

Clinton ultimately vetoed D'Amato's bill that would hold New York State harmless for a system of state taxes imposed on Medicaid vendors.

Shalala herself may have had no real gripe against New York's vendor tax system. That veto may have been urged by her department's Health Care Financing Administration as a way of settling old scores between her bureaucracy and the state's green-eyeshade types.

HCFA has been quarreling with New York for three or four years. It has a grudge over the Pataki administration's campaign for a waiver allowing Medicaid clients to be forced into managed care.

Clinton himself may not have been aware of why he vetoed the D'Amato Medicaid bill. The reasons he and his aides gave for the action at the time turned out to be patently untrue.

Some critics of the veto system claim that partisan politics is playing a role. But the district of Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Tonawanda, includes the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, recently victimized by a line-item veto.

Republicans like Congressmen Bill Paxon of Amherst and Amory Houghton Jr. of Corning haven't been touched yet by a veto. But most Republicans don't have to resort to special appropriations to get what they need. They are in the majority.

Minority Democrats in Congress are the ones who most need special money bills, and they are the ones who are getting hurt.

Aside from partisan concerns, White House resentments could well come into play in some decisions.

Clinton has to be annoyed at Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., for urging the Clinton-Gore campaign be probed by a special prosecutor. But it is unlikely that would be the dominant reason Clinton would take out his feelings on the 140,000 children who get free medical care because of these taxes.

An example of what a mess the system is in, LaFalce's Air Force money died despite the president's earlier approval of a Defense Department plan that included it.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who insists the process reeks with politics, thinks it can be fixed if the president publicizes iron-clad criteria for line-item vetoes and sticks to them.

Sen. Moynihan and Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, think they have a better idea.

Giuliani filed suit to declare the line-item veto unconstitutional on grounds that Clinton's use of it threatens health care to his city's poor children and elderly. Moynihan will file a friend-of-the-court brief.

Moynihan also introduced a bill to repeal the line-item veto law.

For the moment, Gov. Pataki is taking the middle way. Pataki has prepared a suit. But his doesn't seek to overturn the line-item veto, which he generally favors. The suit says the line-item veto law doesn't entitle the president to attack anything as broad as a statewide vendor tax.

Pataki has refrained from filing, hoping to negotiate away the state's difference with Shalala's troops.

Lawsuit or no lawsuit, the line-item veto won't survive unless the president implements a system that the public sees as fair, honorable, open, and rock-hard predictable.

That's a tall order for this president.

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