Rejecting arguments that the nation’s passenger rail service was at stake, the Senate on Tuesday narrowly upheld President Bush’s veto of continued federal subsidies for the Amtrak railway system.
The Democrats fell just two votes short of winning the two-thirds majority needed to hand the President what would have been his first defeat on a veto override.
Bush has rejected 11 bills in his 17 months in office, and all the vetoes have been sustained--although some, such as the Amtrak bill, were upheld by slim margins only after intense lobbying on the part of the White House.
The Amtrak vote was 64 to 36. Republicans on their way to the President’s 66th birthday party turned up in formal dress to vote.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), however, served notice that the Democrats have not given up on the Amtrak issue. He switched sides and voted to sustain the veto at the last minute. That gave the Democrats another chance to defeat the veto, since parliamentary rules allow a member of the winning side to request reconsideration of a vote. The House voted, 294 to 123, to override the Amtrak veto last week.
Mitchell did not indicate when he would schedule another Senate vote. Congressional sources said that he obviously hopes substantial popular support for the Amtrak legislation will generate enough lobbying pressure in coming days to switch at least two Republican votes.
“A vote against Amtrak is always a loser. There is no political capital in voting with the President on this,” conceded an aide to one Republican who supported the veto.
In the end, all but 10 Republicans voted with the Administration, but many of them appeared to have done so reluctantly and because of intensive White House lobbying led by Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner.
Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.), the bill’s Democratic floor manager, said that some Republicans also may have been swayed by the fact that they were on their way to the President’s birthday party. There was “some talk” that sustaining the veto would be “the good and kind thing to do” on Bush’s birthday, he said.
Although an override would have had symbolic importance, breaking Bush’s winning streak on veto votes, both Democrats and Republicans sought to play down suggestions that the political significance of the vote went beyond the merits of the bill.
“There was no strong political message here like there was in the fight over the Chinese-students veto,” one Democratic congressional source said. “This fight was over one relatively narrow provision in the Amtrak bill.”
That provision, which the White House denounced as “reregulation,” would subject certain types of railroad acquisitions to closer scrutiny from the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Bush cited this as his sole reason for vetoing the bill on May 24, and offered to sign a substitute bill without the ICC provision.
Democrats said it could take weeks or months to pass a new bill through all the committees having jurisdiction over it.