President Bush yesterday rejected a spending bill that would have kept the federal government running at full force for a week, and hours later the House failed to reverse him.
The House, voting 260 to 138, fell six votes short of the two-thirds needed to override the veto and left the government without the authority to spend a penny as congressional leaders continued searching for a solution to the budget stalemate.
Congressional budget negotiators met into last night and are to meet again today in hopes of striking a deal that could be presented to the House and Senate later today. "That's what we're working toward," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) as he shuttled between meetings.
The battle provided a rallying cry to reunite House Republicans after last week's fractious fight over the five-year, $500 billion budget agreement reached by Bush administration officials and congressional leaders. House Republicans, who had voted 105 to 71 against Bush and the budget agreement, yesterday backed the president, 129 to 25, with 22 not voting, in his veto of the stopgap spending measure.
"It would be a little point of pride if we could do it," House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) urged his colleagues during the raucous and partisan debate. "We can do it if we will."
The clamorous House session was played out before galleries filled with tourists, who were unable to visit such other attractions as the Smithsonian Institution and the Washington Monument, which had been closed by the government shutdown that came when federal spending authority ran out.
The House had approved the spending bill Friday night with 66 Republicans joining 234 Democrats in the 300 to 113 vote.
Bush vetoed the spending bill in an effort to spotlight congressional failures in the prolonged budget standstill. Early Friday morning, the House had soundly rejected the five-year deficit-reduction plan agreed upon by administration officials and congressional leaders.
Speaking with reporters outside the White House and in his formal veto message to Congress, a defiant Bush said the government shutdown was made necessary by lawmakers' inability to put aside local politics in favor of the national good.
"The Congress has got to get on with the people's business," he said. "I've had enough of it, and I think the American people have had enough of it. . . . I'm very sorry that I have to do this, but I made very clear that I am not going to be part of business as usual when we have one deficit after another piling up."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) rejected the president's characterization. "We are working very hard," he said. "We are working with Republicans and Democrats to draft a budget resolution . . . that can be agreed to."
Foley called the veto "unnecessary, unjustified, harmful, both to the negotiating process of reaching a bipartisan agreement and to the interests of millions of Americans who will be affected by a shutdown of the government."
At a White House meeting with congressional leaders, Bush said he would accept a stopgap omnibus spending bill if it did not delay the across-the-board spending cuts, called a "sequestration," mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law. But Foley said that would be unacceptable.
"We do not think there should be any interruption in the federal government or any imposition of sequestration at the time when we are seeking to reach a conclusion," he said.
If no deal has been struck by later today, Michel intends to offer a short-term spending bill that would make an across-the-board cut comparable to the $40.1 billion full-year savings envisioned by the failed budget accord.
"We are making some progress," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) said of the negotiations.
A likely compromise would be to keep the overall spending figures of the failed plan but leave such details as which taxes to raise and which benefit programs to cut for congressional committees to decide. "The more we try to build in specifics, the tougher it is to pass," Panetta said.
An increasing number of House Republicans have said they would be willing to raise the personal income tax rate for the wealthiest Americans if Democrats would accept a cut in capital gains taxes. "If anyone can take the hit, and if anyone should take the hit, it's the wealthiest one percent of Americans," Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) said yesterday. "It's time someone, yes, a Republican, came out and said it like it is."
The issue of capital gains taxes and assessments on the rich had deadlocked budget talks for weeks.
Meanwhile, another fiscal deadline looms. The stopgap spending measure Bush rejected also included an extension of the federal government's borrowing authority through Friday. Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling by Thursday, the government would default when $17.5 billion in Treasury notes come due.
During the boisterous House debate, Republicans said the government shutdown was needed to force action on a spending plan for the fiscal year that began last Monday. "The people want change even if it means closing the Washington Monument," said Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio). "We're sick and tired of the old shopworn ways in which we run this place."
The failed budget agreement between administration officials and congressional leaders stated that Bush would not sign any temporary spending bills if a budget resolution had not been given final congressional approval by Friday. "I read his lips on this one," said Rep. Thomas J. Ridge (R-Pa.). "He did what he said he would do, and I urge my colleagues to sustain him."
But lawmakers from both parties argued that Bush's veto should be overturned because it would harm innocent bystanders to a fight between Bush and lawmakers. Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) accused Bush, who motored to Camp David to spend last night, of "treating 2 million federal workers like Saddam Hussein treats his guests in Iraq."
"People are being hurt," Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) told his colleagues. "You may not feel it between the marble walls of the Capitol, but people out there are being hurt."
"We are the ones to blame, not the federal workers and the beneficiaries of government programs," said Conte, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said in arguing against the president's veto.
Rep. John T. Myers (Ind.), another of the 25 Republicans who voted to overturn the veto, said it was not an issue of partisan loyalty but of keeping the government operating smoothly. "It isn't that I love Caesar less, but that I love Rome more," he said.
Toward the end of the debate, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), dressed in white tie and tails, went to the House well to a standing ovation. His eldest son's wedding was to begin in less than a half-hour, he explained. "Let's end this debate, let's override this veto and let me love my son," he said.
Boos and catcalls punctuated the rare Saturday session. Lawmakers hissed as the clerk read Bush's veto message, prompting Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) to say, "Mr. Speaker, there are snakes loose in the chamber."
The tumult moved Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to ask his colleagues, "Can we quit lobbing hand grenades back and forth?"
Maryland representatives voted to override the veto, as did all but three Virginians, Reps. Donald M. Payne (D), Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R) and D. French Slaughter Jr. (R), who voted to sustain it.
Administration officials and House GOP leaders had hoped the veto fight would help reunite the party after last week's budget fight pitted moderate Republicans led by Michel, who supported the accord, and the rebellious conservatives led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who opposed it.
To drive the point home, Gingrich posed for photograhers with White House lobbyists pressing their veto effort. "It's a definite unifier for us," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the third-ranking House Republican leader.
"They are trying to make up for what happened," a senior administration official said.
But there is still much work to be done to repair damaged relations between House Republicans who opposed the budget agreement and administration officials. "They have no coherent plan," one GOP lawmaker complained.
Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa) yesterday wrote Bush to assure him that his vote against the package "was not a vote against you, rather it was the voice of the American people being heard." Lightfoot urged Bush to "come out of the White House" to help House Republicans "heal and unite. . . . Come meet with House Republicans," he wrote. "Your staff did a lot of insensitive and unnecessary things to Republican members. Bring Millie, but leave the pit bulldogs at the White House."
Staff writers Tom Kenworthy and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.