WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Thursday night easily sustained President Bush's veto of a Democratic health and education spending bill.
The 277-141 vote looked deceptively close, falling just two votes short of the two-thirds tally required to overturn Bush's veto. But as they did on three previous occasions, GOP leaders confidently managed their ranks to make sure Bush would not be embarrassed.
Some of the congressional combatants already were looking past the veto in hopes that it might prompt the White House to negotiate on that measure and 10 other bills that provide money to Cabinet departments for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters that when Congress returns in December from a two-week Thanksgiving recess, Democrats would send Bush a catchall spending bill combining Congress' unfinished budget work — after cutting about $11 billion from them.
Democrats have written domestic spending bills adding more than $22 billion to Bush's budget, prompting a wave of veto threats from the White House. Reid promised to cut that amount in half, saying it was a fair compromise.
"We're going to bundle these bills up and send a bill splitting the difference," Reid told reporters. If Bush vetoes that bill, Democrats might just put the government on autopilot at current spending levels for weeks, months.
"If the proposal is to split the difference," said Rep. Jim Walsh, a New York moderate serving as GOP bill manager for the health, education and job training bill, "I would advise the president to take yes for an answer."
The Democratic-driven education and health bill contains $151 billion in discretionary appropriations under lawmakers' direct control. More than any other spending bill, it defines the differences between Bush and his Democratic rivals.
In recent years, Bush has sought to cut the labor, health and education measure below the prior year's level. Lawmakers always have rejected the cuts, but the budget that Bush presented in February sought almost $4 billion in cuts from levels for the 2007 budget year, the largest he's ever recommended.
Democrats responded by adding $10 billion to Bush's request for the 2008 bill, with another $2 billion in future-year funding devoted to education. The increases cover a broad spectrum of social programs backed by Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Bill author Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said Thursday night that splitting the difference with Bush on the health and education bill would still lead to unacceptable budget cuts such as a $400 million decrease for special education and a $200 million cut in community health centers that would affect 600,000 people.
Republicans on Capitol Hill admit Bush's health and education cuts aren't sustainable. Some of them hope the unsuccessful veto override might spur the warring factions into negotiations aimed at averting a fiscal train wreck.
"I've got the feeling that this will lead to some serious movement," said California Rep. Jerry Lewis, top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
"If you work that bill out, everything else falls into place," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said.
But plenty of lawmakers remained pessimistic that the impasse could be broken. Many GOP stalwarts want Bush to take a hard line, and thus far, he's shown no sign of wavering.
The increases in the education, health and job training bill cover a broad spectrum of social programs, including:
—A 20 percent increase over Bush's request for job training programs.
—$1.4 billion more than Bush's request for health research at the National Institutes of Health, a 5 percent increase.
—$2.4 billion for heating subsidies for the poor, $480 million more than Bush requested.
—$665 million for grants to community action agencies; Bush sought to kill the program outright.
—$63.6 billion for the Education Department, a 5 percent increase over 2007 spending and 8 percent more than Bush's request.
—A $225 million increase for community health centers.