WASHINGTON – President Bush suffered the first veto override of his seven-year-old presidency Thursday as the Senate enacted a $23 billion water resources bill despite his protest that it was filled with unnecessary projects.
The 79-14 vote included 34 Republicans who defied the president. Enactment was a foregone conclusion, but it still marked a milestone for a president who spent his first six years with a much friendlier Congress controlled by his Republican Party.
Now he confronts a more hostile, Democratic-controlled legislature, and Thursday's vote showed that most of the Republicans will defy him on spending matters dear to their political careers.
Bush's spokeswoman portrayed the issue as a divide between a budget-conscious president and a big-spending Congress.
"The president is standing up for the taxpayers," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "No one is surprised that this veto is overridden. We understand that members of Congress are going to support the projects in their districts. Budgeting is about making choices and defining priorities -- it doesn't mean you can have everything. This bill doesn't make the difficult choices; it says we can fund every idea out there. That's not a responsible way to budget."
The bill funds hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers projects, such as dams, sewage plants and beach restoration, that are important to local communities and their representatives. It also includes money for the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast and for Florida Everglades restoration efforts.
The House voted 361-54 to override the veto Tuesday. Both votes easily exceeded the two-thirds majority needed in each chamber to negate a presidential veto.
The last such veto override happened when Congress dealt President Clinton the second of his two overrides in February 1998.
Bush vetoed no bills during his first five years in office. He has since vetoed a stem cell research bill twice, an Iraq spending bill that set guidelines for troop withdrawals, and a children's health insurance bill. House and Senate Republicans managed to sustain those vetoes.
But they broke ranks on the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, which Bush vetoed on Nov. 2, calling it too expensive. Thirty-four Republicans voted with the 43 Democrats and two independents to override the veto. Two Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, voted with 12 Republicans to sustain Bush's veto.
His supporters have noted that the Army Corps has a backlog of $58 billion worth of projects and an annual budget of about $2 billion to address them.
The bill, the first water system restoration and flood control authorization passed by Congress since 2000, would cost $11.2 billion over the next four years, and $12 billion in the 10 years after that, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Flood protection projects along the Gulf Coast, including 100-year levee protection in New Orleans, would cost about $7 billion if fully funded. The bill approves projects but does not fund them.
Some of Bush's most ardent allies argued for the override. "This bill is enormously important, and it has been a long time coming," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., whose state was hammered by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
The bill "is one of the few areas where we actually do something constructive," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss. What Bush sees as pork barrel items, Lott said, "are good, deserved, justified projects."
"Almost every president opposes this type of bill," he said.
Democrats are sure to remind such Republicans of their rejection of Bush's budgetary concerns when debate turns to several spending bills he also vows to veto.
Democrats, frustrated by their inability to force Bush's hand on Iraq and other matters, clearly enjoyed their victory Thursday. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the message to the White House was, "you can't keep rolling over us like this."
The bill would authorize the construction of navigation improvements for the Upper Mississippi River, at an estimated federal cost of $1.9 billion, and an ecosystem restoration project for the Upper Mississippi costing $1.7 billion.
The Indian River Lagoon project in the Florida Everglades would be funded at about $700 million.
The bill calls for an independent peer review process of all Army Corps projects costing $45 million or more, a bid to cut down on wasteful spending.