Bush Beholds the Power of Pork

Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer, Ben Cardin and Mary Landrieu, from left, proclaim victory yesterday.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer, Ben Cardin and Mary Landrieu, from left, proclaim victory yesterday. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, November 9, 2007

The levies couldn't hold.

Ten minutes after noon yesterday, the floodgates burst on the Senate floor, and the dams crumbled. Billions of dollars for public-works projects poured forth. For the first time in the Bush presidency, Congress had overridden a veto.

The legislature has proved impotent in its efforts to challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the waterboarding of prisoners. But the president learned an important lesson yesterday: Don't mess with lawmakers' pet projects.

Bush vetoed a $23 billion bill for water projects after the White House determined that it was "unacceptable" to the nation's finances. Yesterday, the Senate, following the House, told Bush just what was acceptable, voting 79 to 14 to override the veto. If anything, the opposition to Bush was even greater than the margin suggests; not a single senator came to the floor during yesterday's debate to defend Bush's veto.

"The president of the United States made a mistake," proclaimed Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a usual Bush ally.

"The veto on this bill was ill-advised," agreed Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, argued that Bush "is trying to hold the line on spending -- congratulations." But as for Lott's vote? "I believe that this bill is in the best interest of the country."

Democrats dared to hope that the president, once overridden, would become permanently weakened in his battles with Congress. "For the seven years this man has been president, he ignored us," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said as he sat with colleagues in his office after the vote. "I would hope this is a message that the president can't just take his Republican colleagues for granted."

That may be wishful thinking. The veto override -- Democrats said it was only the 107th in the history of the Republic -- was less about balance of power than balance of pork. One after the other, senators took to the floor to note the bill's importance to their parochial concerns.

"In this bill is money for the planning district of Georgia," offered Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

"In this bill, there are nearly $2 billion for . . . Florida's Everglades," agreed Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla).

Lott spoke of "proper salinity in the Gulf of Mexico." Domenici had visions of "a park along the Rio Grande." And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spoke of wine country. "In Napa," she said, "there's a flood-control program there that's essential."

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