A defiant Congress last night overrode President Bush's veto of legislation to re-regulate the cable television industry, handing Bush the first veto-fight defeat of his presidency as he heads into the final month of his reelection campaign.
Despite an almost frantic White House lobbying effort to get wavering Republicans to switch sides, the Senate voted 74 to 25 -- the same as it did in passing the bill last month -- to enact the legislation over the president's objections.
Three hours later, amid cheers, whistles and shouts of "Four more months" from Democrats, the House followed suit by a vote of 308 to 114, ending the president's winning streak at 35 consecutive vetoes sustained by the Democratic-controlled Congress.
It was an even bigger margin than the 280-to-128 vote by which the House passed the bill last month.
Jubilant backers of the legislation won substantially more than the two-thirds required to override a veto, with seven votes to spare in the Senate and 26 in the House.
Republicans, including all the senators who had been lobbied personally by Bush, held firm in the face of pleas from their leaders for loyalty to their embattled president. "This is politics. This is an effort to embarrass President Bush 30 days before the elections," Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told the Senate in a strong last-minute appeal to Republicans that apparently fell on deaf ears, even among some other members of the GOP leadership.
In the House, Rep. Steve Gunderson (Wis.), chief deputy Republican whip, disagreed with Dole. "This is not a vote to embarrass the president. This is a vote to support our constituents," Gunderson told the House in urging an override, which was also supported by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
The bill imposes new government controls on rates for basic cable services and for cable equipment. Cable prices have risen at three times the rate of inflation since Congress allowed most franchise owners to begin setting their own rates in 1986. The White House, in a statement before the House vote, said the president wants to lower prices for 56 million subscribers through increased competition.
The override came as an already weary, grumpy 102nd Congress headed into a marathon night session in hopes of adjourning today if the Senate can unravel snarls that have developed over energy legislation and a $27 billion tax relief and urban aid package.
Although passed by the House last night, the energy bill could force the Senate back into session Thursday, after the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday, if a dispute over language to expedite development of a nuclear waste site in Nevada is not resolved by today.
Lawmakers were also anxiously awaiting word about whether the president would sign or veto the tax bill.
And, as the evening wore on, threats of potentially lethal delaying tactics were piling up in the Senate against every major bill still to be passed, including tax, energy and western water legislation.
Legislation to ease the administration's ban on use of aborted fetuses in biomedical research was an early casualty of the adjournment juggernaut. Senate Democratic leaders bowed reluctantly to a Republican filibuster and shelved the bill, blaming both Bush and "the most extreme antiabortion zealots in his party" for the death of the measure. Democrats said the bill would be the first priority of Congress next year.
But the Senate joined the House in passing the last three of 13 appropriations bills that Congress had to pass for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. The bills, funding defense, foreign aid and congressional operations, are expected to be signed by Bush.
In the Senate vote on the cable bill, 24 Republicans, a majority of GOP senators, voted with most Democrats to override the veto, including all of the roughly 10 Republicans who were courted personally by Bush and top White House officials. All Washington area senators, including Virginia Republican John W. Warner, who was lobbied personally by Bush, voted to override.
In the House, 77 Republicans voted to override, while 85 voted to sustain.
Until yesterday, Bush had been sustained in all 35 vetoes he had cast, including three that Congress tried and failed to override in the past week. The White House was desperate to avert an override now to avoid giving the impression, just a month before the Nov. 3 elections, that Bush had been weakened in dealing with Congress.
The bill reverses some provisions of the deregulatory Cable Act of 1984, which many blamed for rising cable rates. It is aimed at reducing rates, improving service and spurring competition with monopoly cable companies.
It permits the Federal Communications Commission to oversee rates charged for "basic" cable service and order rollbacks of rates deemed "unreasonable." The government will also regulate prices for cable equipment and set minimum customer service standards.
In a provision that has sparked competing lobbying campaigns by the cable industry and broadcasters, the bill permits broadcasters to seek compensation from cable operators when the operator voluntarily transmits the broadcaster's signal. Movie and television studios had weighed in on the side of cable operators, arguing they should share in any compensation for such broadcasts.
In other action:
Both houses gave final approval to a $14 billion foreign aid spending bill -- about $1.1 billion less than Bush requested -- that includes $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel, $417 million in economic aid for the former Soviet republics and an additional $12 billion line of credit to the International Monetary Fund. The House approved it by 312 to 105; the Senate concurred by voice vote.
The House and Senate approved by voice a $274 billion defense spending bill, reflecting a cut of $7 billion from Bush's request and a reduction of $16 billion from current military spending. Included are funds for the final three B-2 "stealth" bombers to complete a 20-plane fleet, $1.5 billion for defense conversion to civilian purposes and $3.8 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- $1.6 billion less than Bush sought. The Senate, voting 68 to 30, joined the House in giving final approval to a $2.3 billion spending bill for congressional operations, a reduction of 6.5 percent from current funding. It included the Senate's proposed expansion of Capitol Police jurisdiction to cover the new judiciary building near Union Station.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) withdrew the National Institutes of Health reauthorization bill, including the fetal tissue research provisions as well as expanded research programs on women's health problems, and blamed a dozen antiabortion senators for its defeat.
The energy bill, the most comprehensive energy legislation in a decade, was approved by vote of 363 to 60 by the House but faces a filibuster by Nevada senators protesting language that could expedite location of the nation's nuclear-waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev. The bill would expand the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, make it easier to build nuclear plants, require more use of vehicles not fueled by gasoline, subsidize mortgage rates for energy-efficient houses and set or increase efficiency standards for lights, showers and electric motors.
The House early today approved legislation revamping operations of California's Central Valley Project, the nation's largest federal water project, to redirect water away from agricultural users to urban water systems and the environment. House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise on the controversial bill Sunday, but its future is uncertain because Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) has threatened to filibuster the measure.
Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.