President Bush has vowed to veto the $318 billion highway-spending bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate February 12, possibly setting up a major confrontation between a Republican President and the Republican Congress on a budget issue.
“If that legislation comes to his desk, the President will veto it,” White House Spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters February 13. “The President has made it very clear that we need to fund our important priorities like winning the war on terrorism, protecting the homeland and strengthening our economy, and that we need to hold the line on spending elsewhere in the budget.”
McClellan’s words may have put Bush in the fast lane to his first veto.
The President initially requested $256 billion for the six-year highway bill. That amounted to a generous 21% increase over the previous 1998 highway bill. The House is now considering its own version of the highway bill, which is bigger even than the Senate’s version. At $375 billion, it would increase federal highway spending by 90%.
Test of Discipline
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta also told reporters in Pittsburgh February 18 that the highway bill was “veto-bait.”
“President Bush is prepared to veto any transportation bill that would raise gas taxes, increase federal deficits or take money for other important projects to pay for road projects,” Mineta said.
“The Senate missed an opportunity to show spending restraint,” he said. “The only way the House bill can pass is if they have at least a six-cent gasoline tax increase for each of the six years of the life of their bill,” he added.
President Bush promised in 2002 that any tax increase during his presidency would have to pass, using his words, “over my dead body.”
Given the 76-21 vote for the bill in the Senate and the strong House support for an even more expensive bill, there is a very real possibility that a Bush veto could be overridden. Foreseeing this problem, conservative Rep. Chris Cox (R.-Calif.) recently outlined a “veto strategy” to help the President control spending (see cover story, Feb. 9 issue).
“A veto strategy would require only one-third of the Congress and the President working together to control spending,” Cox wrote. “To this end, I am organizing 145 of my colleagues–one-third plus one of the House–to sign a pledge to President Bush that we will vote to sustain any veto he casts to control spending.”
As of press time, Cox had gathered 96 signatures (see list below), and it appeared likely that he could succeed in getting the requisite one-third.
“I absolutely think this is a very good place for the President to draw the line,” said Rep. Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.), one of the signers. “A broad segment of our party seems to get the notion that we’re just spending too much, and we really need to rein this in,” added Toomey, noting that the early signers of Cox’s pledge include several Republican moderates such as Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R.-Wash.). “They’re hearing it from Republicans back in their districts, they’re hearing it all across the country.”
If Cox can bring together the 146 congressmen needed to sustain a presidential veto, it could give Bush confidence to use his veto pen more often and energize the conservative base of the Republican Party, which has been demoralized by the uncontrolled spending habits of an all-Republican government.
If Cox succeeds, it would also remove one possible excuse for Bush not to veto bad spending bills in the future.
In the case of the highway bill, Bush appears to be spoiling for a fight. In his February 8 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bush volunteered his opinion of the highway bill when asked generally about the issue of controlling spending.
“The highway bill–it’s going to be an interesting test of fiscal discipline on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, spoke favorably of the bloated highway bill and expressed dismay that Bush would even consider a veto.
“It is inexplicable to me why there is even discussion about the administration threatening to veto this bipartisan package,” said Sen. Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.) in a February 4 floor speech. “Opposing the financing provisions would raise troubling questions about the administration’s priorities.”
Even most of the conservative senators who opposed the highway bill said on the Senate floor that they were doing so because they felt their states were being shortchanged by the funding formula.
Here are the 96 signers of the pledge to the President to sustain a veto on unnecessary spending, as of 2/20/2004 at 8:50 AM. Congressman Cox tells HUMAN EVENTS that he only recently began collecting signatures. If you don’t see your Congressman here, give him a call and encourage him to do so. You can reach him by calling the Congressional Switchboard at 202-224-3121.
Jo Ann Davis