By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
NEW ALBANY, Ind., Nov. 13 -- A budget dispute erupted into a full-scale battle Tuesday as President Bush vetoed the Democrats' top-priority domestic spending bill and the party's Senate leader threatened to withhold war funding if the president does not agree to pull out of Iraq.
The long-anticipated clash came to a head as Bush rejected a $606 billion bill to fund education, health and labor programs, complaining that it is too expensive and is larded with pork. Within hours, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) declared that Bush will not get more money to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year unless he accepts a plan to complete troop withdrawals by the end of next year.
The exchange encapsulated a broader confrontation over national priorities, a battle both sides appear eager to wage heading into an election year. As Bush demands full funding for the war, he signaled that Tuesday's action will be the first of a cascade of vetoes killing other spending bills, casting himself as a deficit hawk blocking a tax-and-spend Congress. Democrats are seeking to paint Bush as a reckless leader who spent the nation deep into debt through failed war policies while ignoring schools, medical research and other vital areas.
The showdown evokes the budget battle of 1995 between President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress that led to the federal government's shutdown. A politically weakened Clinton used that episode to redefine himself, just as an unpopular Bush wants to wage a veto fight to demonstrate strength with 14 months left in office and to play off a Congress with as little public support as that led by Newt Gingrich a dozen years ago.
The president vetoed the appropriations bill funding the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education at the White House before flying here to lambaste Congress in a speech to local leaders. He said that the bill spends nearly $10 billion more than his proposed budget and includes more than 2,200 pet projects, or earmarks, such as a prison museum, a sailing school taught aboard a catamaran and a program teaching Portuguese as a second language.
"The majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it's acting like a teenager with a new credit card," Bush said in his speech here. "This year alone, the leadership in Congress has proposed to spend $22 billion more than my budget provides. Now, some of them claim that's not really much of a difference -- the scary part is, they seem to mean it."
At the same time, Bush signed a $459 billion annual Defense Department spending bill that increases the Pentagon's budget 9.5 percent to fund operations other than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although that legislation also includes what he calls unnecessary spending, he said he considers it important to deliver money to the military in a time of war.
Democrats and their allies quickly attacked Bush for his veto of the education-health bill. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) called it "pure politics," and the National Education Association, a teachers union, called it a "politically-motivated attack on children." Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean vowed that "Republicans will pay for it in next year's elections."
Many Democrats contrasted the $10 billion Bush objected to in domestic spending with the $196 billion he has requested for war funding. "With today's veto, the president has shown once again how out of touch and out of step he is with the values of America's families," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "Cancer research, investments in our schools, job training, protecting workers and many other urgent priorities have all fallen victim to a president who squanders billions of dollars in Iraq but is unwilling to invest in America's future."
At a Capitol Hill news conference, Reid threatened not to give Bush any of the money he has sought to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. The House has unveiled legislation giving Bush the first $50 billion of the war funding request but requiring him to begin troop withdrawals immediately and to plan for pulling out combat forces by the end of next year. If Bush vetoes the bill, as threatened, Reid said, "then the president won't get his $50 billion."
Bush rejected one bill in his first six years in office while Republicans controlled Congress. He has now used his veto pen five times this year, including for an earlier troop-withdrawal plan, a $35 billion five-year expansion of a children's health insurance program and a $23 billion water-projects authorization. Congress overrode him on the water bill, the first rejection of a veto in his presidency.
But Tuesday's was his first veto of any of the 12 annual spending bills that keep the government operating. The education-health bill he rejected included entitlement spending for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, as well as $150.7 billion in discretionary spending. Congress sought to restore $3.6 billion that Bush had cut from those discretionary programs in his proposed budget and add $6.2 billion on top of that, for a net 4.3 percent increase in spending. Among the additions was more money for Bush's own No Child Left Behind school-accountability program.
Democrats vowed to try to override Bush's veto but do not appear to have the votes. The House approved the bill last week 274 to 141, three votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto; the Senate voted 56 to 37 for the measure, falling 11 votes shy of a veto-proof majority if all senators vote.
Bush also used his trip here to denounce Congress for not acting on the energy plan he outlined in his State of the Union address at the beginning of the year. He set out a series of deadlines for action, insisting that Congress pass a veterans affairs spending bill before Thanksgiving, legislation to ease the impact of the alternative minimum tax within the next couple weeks and his separate war-spending plan by Christmas.
Speaking against a backdrop emblazoned with the slogan "Holding the Line on Taxes," he vowed to veto tax increases, including a measure that passed the House last week exempting middle-class families from the AMT by raising taxes on financial managers, equity fund managers and multinational corporations. "If you find a bill that doesn't have a tax increase, just wait awhile," he said. "They'll put one in there."