Bush's Veto Strategy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Addressing a Republican fund-raising dinner at the Washington Convention Center last Wednesday night, President Bush declared: "If the Democrats want to test us, that’s why they give the president the veto. I’m looking forward to vetoing excessive spending, and I’m looking forward to having the United States Congress support my veto."

That was more than blather for a political pep rally. Bush plans to veto the Homeland Security appropriations bill nearing final passage, followed by vetoes of eight more money bills sent him by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

That constitutes a veto onslaught of historic proportions from a president who did not reject a single bill during his first term. Of the 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2008, only three will be signed by the president in the form shaped by the House. What’s more, Bush correctly claimed he has the one-third plus one House votes needed to sustain these vetoes. The unpopular president is taking the offensive on fiscal responsibility. After bowing to Republican demands on earmarks, Democratic leadership face a battle of the budget.

Bush was the first president since John Quincy Adams not to exercise his veto power during a complete four-year term, even though the Republican-controlled Congress was on a spending spree. He has vetoed two bills in his second term, rejecting only the Iraq war money bill since Democrats took control.

Dwight D. Eisenhower a half century ago seemed no more comfortable with the veto, but I observed how much Ike was energized during his last two years as president following a Democratic midterm election landslide by using what he called his "veto pistol" 24 times (only twice overridden despite huge Democratic majorities). Bush’s aides report similar enthusiasm by the current president on the eve of his veto offensive.

The first appropriations bill to be vetoed, Homeland Security, raises spending 14 percent over the previous year, compared with 7 percent requested by the administration. Bush also objects to this measure because it applies higher wages under the Davis-Bacon Act to workers covered by the bill.

The second money bill hitting the president’s desk, Military Construction and VA (Veterans Affairs), is even more costly, with a 30 percent boost contrasted with the administration’s 22 percent increase. Nevertheless, Bush will sign this bill, as indicated in a SAP (statement of administration policy) issued last Wednesday night.

According to congressional sources, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, privately advised the White House against a veto because it would be overridden thanks to support for veterans — setting a bad example for the future.

Bush next plans vetoes of the Energy-Water and Interior-Environment bills. The remaining vetoes would be on Labor, HHS, Education; Transportation and HUD; Commerce, Justice and Science; Agriculture and Rural Development; State and Foreign Operations (partly because the House bill omits the so-called Mexico City anti-abortion language) and Defense. In addition to the VA appropriation, the only other money bills Bush plans to sign are Legislative Branch, where Congress traditionally sets its own funding, and Financial Services and General Government, where the House bill actually falls short of the administration’s request.

Hensarling last week collected signatures of 147 House Republicans, one more than needed, pledging to sustain money bill vetoes, and the number is growing. Rep. James Walsh, representing a shaky upstate New York district, as the ranking Republican on the Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee, has indicated he probably will vote to override a veto of that bill. But subcommittee ranking Republicans — the famous "cardinals" who are a law unto themselves in Congress — met with the president last Thursday and signaled support for his budget offensive.

It is an offensive pressed on Bush by congressional GOP leaders and by his own budget director, Rob Portman, a former member of the House Republican leadership as a congressman from Ohio. Portman believes the 2006 electoral catastrophe in his state was caused mainly by Republicans losing the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Unless it is retrieved, Ohio — and the presidency — will go to the Democrats in 2008. By vetoes that would slice over $20 billion in Democratic spending, Bush is seeking to transform that outlook. It will trigger an epochal political struggle in the months ahead.