By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
The House voted to override a veto by President Bush for the first time yesterday, acting to save a $23 billion water resources bill stuffed with pet projects sought by lawmakers from both political parties.
The Senate is likely to follow suit as early as today, in what would be the biggest Republican defection of Bush's tenure -- even given the legislation's obscurity.
Yesterday's 361 to 54 override tally was 90 votes more than the two-thirds needed, and was made up of the votes of 223 Democrats and 138 Republicans. Just 54 Republicans stuck with Bush.
"Congress will reassert its policymaking ability," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) vowed. "We are, in fact, the deciders on policy."
The vote could put Republicans in an awkward position as Bush confronts Democrats in the coming weeks over spending bills that the president says are too generous. It could also complicate the stalemate over bipartisan efforts to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
Many of the same Republican lawmakers who voted yesterday to save what Bush called a bloated water projects bill will have to make the case that bills to fund health care, education, local law enforcement and other Democratic domestic priorities are too expensive.
GOP leaders from the House and the Senate had warned Bush that his veto would be overridden. But Bush decided to take a stand.
"When I was asked whether or not he should consider vetoing it, I said, 'Probably so,' " said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "When I was asked would it be sustained, I said, 'Probably not.' When I was asked how I would vote, I said I'd vote to override."
The bill would authorize billions of dollars in coastal restoration, river navigation and dredging projects, levee construction and other Army Corps of Engineers public-works efforts. Seven years in the making, the measure took on particular political resonance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as Gulf Coast lawmakers secured nearly $2 billion in restoration and levee construction projects for the region. The bill would also continue projects such as the restoration of the Everglades and the dredging of the upper Mississippi River, while expanding oversight of the Army Corps.
"This is far too important for this nation and my state of Florida," said Rep. John L. Mica, who led the Republican effort to override Bush's veto.
"Let's override the president. Let's do something right for America," Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) exhorted.
But the bill would merely authorize such projects. Lawmakers backing the projects must now secure funding through the House and Senate appropriations committees, with no guarantees. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said some Republicans made the case that the GOP's stand for fiscal rectitude should apply to such "authorization" bills, but others drew a distinction between measures such as the water bill and actual spending bills, on which they have vowed to stand with the president.
"I can safely say there are differences of opinion among Republicans," McConnell said.
Domestic spending for the fiscal year promises to be the larger drama over the next few weeks. Democrats hoped to send Bush a $150.7 billion spending bill to fund health, education and labor programs, coupled with a $64.7 billion military construction and veterans affairs bill, daring the White House and Republicans to reject large increases in health-care spending for veterans. The military bill exceeds Bush's budget request by $4 billion. The health and education bill calls for nearly $10 billion more than the president wants.
The package was passed overwhelmingly in the House last night, 269 to 142, but short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome Bush's promised veto. Senate Republicans are likely to prevail this week in their efforts to split the two bills, allowing Bush to sign the military legislation and reject the domestic-spending measure.