WASHINGTON – In a stunning vote that illustrated President Bush's diminished standing, the Senate on Thursday ignored his veto threat and added tens of billions of dollars for veterans and the unemployed to his Iraq war spending bill.
A majority of Republicans broke ranks with Bush on a veto-proof 75-22 vote while adding more than $10 billion for various domestic programs, including heating subsidies for the poor, wildfire fighting, roads and bridge repair, and health research.
Democrats crowed about their victory. But the developments meant more confusion about when the must-pass measure might actually pass and what the final version will contain.
Senators voted 70-26 to approve $165 billion to fulfill Bush's request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next spring, when Bush's successor will set war policy. Overall, the measure contains $212 billion over the coming two years — $28 billion more than the administration sought — plus about $50 billion more through 2017 for veterans' education benefits.
Bush has promised to veto the Iraq spending if it exceeds his request. He has enough GOP support in the House to sustain a veto.
But the spectacle of 25 Senate Republicans abandoning the White House and voting to extend jobless benefits by 13 weeks and boost the GI Bill to provide veterans enough money to pay for a four-year education at a public institution made it plain that Bush's influence is waning.
"What influence?" said a triumphant Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's top Democrat. Reid had been skeptical of adding dozens of items favored by the free-spending Appropriations Committee to Bush's war request.
But the committee's plan contained so many smaller items favored by senators in both parties — including money for Gulf Coast Hurricane recovery, NASA, and additional food and drug safety inspectors — that even GOP conservatives such as Larry Craig and Mike Crapo of Idaho rebuffed the White House. The duo were strong supporters of $400 million to subsidize schools in rural counties hit hard by declines in timber revenues.
The bill also contained $490 million for grants to local police departments, $451 million to repair roads damaged by natural disasters, $200 million for the space shuttle program, and $400 million for National Institutes of Health research projects.
The Senate action sent the bill back to the House, which last week endorsed the help for veterans and the unemployed, but kept its version clean of most other domestic programs. The House also included a one-half of a percentage point income tax surcharge on wealthier people to pay for the expanded GI bill.
Because of the differences between the two versions, it will take weeks to pass a final compromise, which Bush is expected to veto, and then send him one he can sign.
Time is slipping, though Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified Wednesday that the Pentagon can scrape by until late July by shifting funds from other accounts to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
First, however, lawmakers left Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.
A popular plan in both the House and Senate bills would block new Bush administration rules that would cut spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled by $13 billion over the next five years. Governors in both parties pressed for the relief.
The White House had braced for defeat even as Democrats initially expressed skepticism they would prevail. Yet the magnitude of the defeat was startling.
"Our troops deserve better than having essential war time resources held hostage to billions in unrelated spending," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. "Congress should pass a clean war funding bill when they return from Memorial Day recess."
Still, it seems clear that Bush will have to accept some Democratic additions.
"When it comes to Iraq, it appears that money is no object for President Bush," said the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. "Yet when it comes to important priorities here at home, he turns into Ebenezer Scrooge."
Domestic programs included $8.2 billion for Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, with $5.8 billion for levees around New Orleans and $348 million for restoration of Mississippi coastal islands.
There is $850 million for international food aid, $1.9 billion for military construction projects, and several billion dollars in various foreign aid programs — all requested by the administration.
In a 63-34 vote, the Senate rejected Democratic efforts to urge Bush to begin redeployment of combat troops and place other limits on his ability to conduct the war in Iraq.