By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007
President Bush escalated his battle with Congress yesterday by vetoing a $23 billion water resources bill stuffed with projects favored by lawmakers from both parties, a move aides hope will reinforce his standing as a fiscal conservative even as he risks the first veto override of his presidency.
The veto came as Bush is fighting with Capitol Hill on a host of fronts, including children's health care, Iraq war spending and his nominee for attorney general. Having failed to push through his top legislative priorities this year, Bush increasingly has turned to a strategy of confrontation, painting Congress as ineffective, partisan and reckless with taxpayer money.
But his rejection of the water projects bill represents a gamble. While it may earn him points with economic conservatives disgruntled with his spending history, Bush has put himself at odds with many congressional Republicans who voted for the measure. Because its sponsors have enough votes to override the president's veto, Congress for the first time can impose its will over his objection, a sign of Bush's political weakness.
In general, an override "means the issue is more popular than the president to some degree," said associate Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie, who studies such issues.
Congress overrode two of Bill Clinton's 22 vetoes and just one of George H.W. Bush's 44 vetoes. On the other end of the spectrum, Gerald R. Ford, who vetoed 66 bills, and Harry S. Truman, who vetoed 250, each had 12 overridden, the most of any president other than Andrew Johnson in the mid-19th century. A two-thirds vote is required in each chamber to override a president's veto and enact a law without his signature.
The current president used his veto power sparingly until this year, but now has turned to it as his main instrument of leverage with Congress. With Republicans in control of Capitol Hill during his first six years in office, Bush vetoed just one bill, a measure to loosen restrictions on stem cell research. But yesterday's veto was his fourth since Democrats took control in January, and his aides eagerly hope for more, seeing such confrontations as a way to define him in opposition to a Congress with approval ratings lower than his.
He will get another chance now that Congress has passed a new version of an already-vetoed measure to double the size of a children's health insurance program. Bush has vowed to veto the slightly altered bill as well, even though it has strong public support in polls, and he plans to veto most of the regular spending bills Congress has yet to pass a month into the new fiscal year. Altogether, the administration has made 111 veto threats this year, just shy of the 145 it issued in the previous six years combined.
Bush appeared to stare down the Senate yesterday in his bid to have Michael B. Mukasey become attorney general. Although several Democrats vowed to vote against him, Mukasey won the endorsement of two key Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, ensuring that he will get out of committee and probably win confirmation on the floor. Bush plans to devote his radio address today to the fight.
The water bill would have authorized $23 billion in projects, including money for wetlands and coastal restoration in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina; restoration of the Florida Everglades; new locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers; and hurricane protection in Mississippi and Louisiana. Bush vetoed the bill even as Laura Bush was in Mississippi giving a speech on the importance of protecting coastal wetlands.
In a message to lawmakers, the president noted that the House passed a $14 billion bill and the Senate a $15 billion bill, yet the conference committee compromised not by splitting the difference but by pumping it up to $23 billion, including 900 projects. "This bill lacks fiscal discipline," he said, adding, "American taxpayers should not be asked to support a pork-barrel system of federal authorization and funding where a project's merit is an afterthought."
Lawmakers from both parties pummeled him in response. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Bush's veto "breaks his commitment to the people of Louisiana to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina." Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) pronounced himself "extremely disappointed" and said the veto "sends the wrong message" about shoring up vital infrastructure.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) promised to set an override vote for Tuesday. "When we override this irresponsible veto," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), "perhaps the president will finally recognize that Congress is an equal branch of government and reconsider his many other reckless veto threats."
A veto fight could complicate efforts by congressional Republicans to reestablish their own reputation for fiscal discipline, and some expressed frustration with Bush. "I question why the president would want to invite an override on this," Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said in an interview, "because that's what's going to happen."
Boustany said all the money for Louisiana's coast is justified. "As a fiscal conservative, I can say these are worthy projects," he said. "I don't think this hurts us in terms of our branding and fiscal conservatism at all."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.