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Vetoes and Strategies: White House and 110th Congress

As the 110th Congress convened this past week, the ancient saying that “time flies” was never truer for me.  It was exactly 40 years ago that this eager 24-year old edged his way into Washington. I had been delayed a few days by what was then the largest snow storm in history. I stayed overnight in a hotel that now houses the Heritage Foundation. Who knew that I would one day be that foundation’s first president?

My only concern then was where to park my car. I had not yet been to my new office, the suite of Senator Gordon L. Allott (R.-Co.). The opening of the 90th Congress was at hand. Republicans had done better than expected in the 1966 elections. In the air, with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, was the prospect that Republicans would win the presidency in 1968.

LBJ had become unpopular because of the war in Viet Nam. He had lost his way politically. The GOP had picked up 46 House seats and five Senate seats. Republicans, especially in the House, along with Representative Joe Waggoner’s (D.-La.) conservative Democrats serving as potential allies, were sufficiently numerous to create political defeats for the White House.

I was eager to learn. I had no doubt that my mentor, Senator Allott, got tired of being peppered with my questions, although he never indicated such. He seemed almost as eager to teach as I had been to learn.

For example, the senator unexpectedly agreed, against the wishes of his entire senior staff, except for yours truly, to transfer himself to the newly created Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. The only reason for doing so was my indicating in a staff meeting that this was my area of interest. So he dropped it in my lap.

It was the best present I possibly could have had. He put me in a position of authority in the one area of my own expertise. Suddenly at age 24, I became “mature beyond my years.” Now I didn’t have only him to teach me, but I also had a bevy of senior staff transferred in because the new subcommittee mirrored the newly created Department of Transportation.

I mention all this because I just witnessed the installation of our brand new Congress. Everything is almost the exact opposite as what it was when I arrived here 40 years ago.

The Democrats had done better than expected in the congressional elections. This was especially true in the House. In the Senate the GOP had not done quite as well. LBJ was mired down in the war, as President George W. Bush is Iraq. The Democrats are certain they are going to win in 2008; the same was true of the Republicans in 1966.

In fact, the effort of Senator Robert P. Griffin (R.-Mich.) to defeat the Johnson’s nomination for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Abe Fortas, was precisely due to the belief in GOP circles that a new Republican president should name the new Chief Justice in 1968. Granted Fortas had enough liabilities to assure his defeat, but I can tell you in my discussions with both Senators Allott and Griffin that a GOP victory in 1968 was very much a motivating factor in defeat of the Fortas nomination. (Fortas resigned from the Court following ethics disclosures.)

True, there was talk of bipartisanship. But LBJ had shoved Great Society legislation down the throats of congress, and if he knew how to compromise, he didn’t show it. All of the talk I heard in those early days was of payback for LBJ. If we could defeat him, we wanted to do so.

The same attitude exists now among the liberals in the House. Bush and the Republicans had often shut them out of the legislative process. Now that they have the majority they want to stick it to Bush, regardless of the issue. The talk of bipartisanship today is worth as much as it was then – very little.

Of course, the one thing which is different today is Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has been dubbed “Queen for a Day” by some of the media. Certainly the liberal media is lapping up her every move. In direct contrast to this situation was John W. McCormack (D.-Mass.), who succeeded Sam Rayburn (D.-Tex.) as Speaker in 1961. A modest man, he indulged none of this pomp now associated with the taking of high office.

The problem is now Republicans. They still haven’t figured out that they lost. After a dozen years in the majority, they have not adjusted to minority status. They come off as whining juveniles who have been deprived of something they think should be theirs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) told some interested parties that he has the ability to stop bad legislation and he would not hesitate to do so. That is well and good. Perhaps then, Republicans will start acting like Republicans.

But the more I thought of what McConnell said the more I thought that perhaps there could be a better way. It takes only 41 Senators to obstruct the majority’s agenda — all the more so because Senator Tim Johnson (D.-S.D.) is ill and is months away from being able to cast his vote on the Senate Floor.

If Senator McConnell defeated legislation in that manner, the media coverage would be negative and confusing. If McConnell could secure an absolute commitment from the president to veto bad legislation, it would be preferable to fighting legislation in the Senate. Let it pass with the votes of all of the Democrats and the few Republicans who always want to do the wrong thing. Then if Bush vetoed such legislation the event would receive enormous and very clear coverage.

President Gerald R. Ford vetoed some 60 bills in his short time in office. Only three were overridden. However, he garnered such good will from doing so that venerable Senate conservatives such as Carl T. Curtis (R.-Neb.) and Clifford P. Hansen (R.-Wyo.) ended up in the Ford camp instead of Ronald Reagan’s in the 1976 presidential sweepstakes.   

If McConnell blocked bad legislation he would cause Senator Harry M. Reid (D.-Nev.) and the Democrats to charge that he was obstructionist. They then would campaign on the theme that additional liberal Senators were needed to override the obstructionist majority.

But if McConnell could get Bush to veto the same legislation, it would be a wholly different ballgame. The President, even with a hostile press, always can get clearer cut coverage for vetoing a bill than a minority of Senators can. The problem will be to get Bush to commit to veto the bad legislation.

Many legislators voted for the infamous McCain-Feingold campaign legislation, which clearly restricts free speech. Bush said he thought the bill was unconstitutional but he was sure the Supreme Court would strike it down.

The Court did not invalidate the law despite language in the First Amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law … [abridging] the freedom of speech…”  But if 41 Senators needed for a filibuster would petition the White House to veto the legislation our guys could fight the Democrat’s legislation and vote against it. It would pass by the narrowest of margins. Then a Bush veto would make a tremendous difference.

I know Bush doesn’t like to veto legislation. He had the excuse these past six years that he didn’t want to go against a Republican Congress. Those days are over.

I hope and pray that the Senators can implement this strategy and that Bush will agree to it. If he were perceived as weak in the past this is a way for him to go out looking strong. The more things change the more they remain the same.

That absolutely can be said of this Congress, despite Pelosi. She will be a passing fad for a time. Meanwhile, Congress will begin to act like Congresses past. If Bush will open the door, a new chapter in our nation’s history can be written. The chapter I propose is unlikely but possible if we all sing off of the same song sheet.

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Mr. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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