President Clinton vetoed the first legislation of his term Wednesday, rejecting a $16.4-billion package of cuts that he said pared too much from education to preserve home-district "pork" spending.
"If we're going to cut spending to balance the budget, we must be even more careful about how we spend the money we do have," Clinton declared, his jaw jutting, as he signed a veto message to Congress in a Rose Garden ceremony. "We have to put education and our children . . . first."
Republican leaders conceded that they did not have the two-thirds majority needed in each house of Congress to override the veto. The measure would have cut $16.4 billion from the budget approved for the current year. But it also would authorize spending an additional $6.7 billion for disaster relief, which would reduce the net amount of deficit reduction under the measure to $9.7 billion.
GOP leaders charged that Clinton's veto showed that he is indifferent to the budget deficit and too willing to gamble with the disaster relief funds, which are earmarked for California and 39 other states. But both sides acknowledged that the veto likely would lead to negotiations that could yield an acceptable compromise.
Clinton had put off his maiden veto longer than any President since Millard Fillmore in the 1850s. The action is widely seen as an indication that he will take political risks to influence the battle over the federal budget that is shaping up as this year's most important Washington contest.
Clinton has threatened to veto a series of GOP measures that may come before him in coming months, climaxing in a huge fiscal 1996 budget reconciliation bill that will cross his desk in late summer.
White House aides said that the veto does not threaten disaster money for immediate relief of earthquake and flood victims, most of whom have already received federal aid. But continued inaction could stall money for larger disaster-related rebuilding projects.
The so-called rescissions bill would pare money for public housing, transportation and a host of other domestic programs. The differences between the White House and the GOP focus on only $1.4 billion of the $16.4-billion total.
As he rejected the measure, Clinton struck a notably accommodating tone, signaling that he does not want to appear so tough that people take him as an agent of the gridlock he has so long deplored.
"I have lived and worked here for two years with a crowd that had the 'just say no' philosophy," Clinton said. Holding up what he suggested was a substitute bill, he added: "What I'm going to do when I veto this is say yes. I'm going to send this bill right back."
"I've done everything I could to cut the deficit," he said.
Clinton used the veto ceremony to try to increase pressure on Republicans to complete a bill that would give a President the authority to veto individual items in each year's budget.
Though it is part of the House Republican "contract with America" campaign manifesto, the so-called line-item veto has been stalled in a House-Senate conference committee because of Republican fears that Clinton would use it to excise favored spending or tax cuts from the budget.
Clinton described himself as "deeply alarmed" at reports that the Republicans would stall the bill. He promised that for the first year he would not use his broadened powers to clip tax cuts but only to eliminate spending that he found objectionable.
"If they send it to me this year, I won't use it on any tax legislation, I will only use it on spending," Clinton said.
Later, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that the offer did not mean that Clinton would surrender the right to veto whole bills containing tax cuts or other provisions he found objectionable.
To illustrate the reasons for his veto, Clinton signed the veto at an awards ceremony for 98 schools that have been cited in a 2-year-old federal Drug Free Schools program. The program, aimed at eliminating drugs through education, counseling and increased physical security, would have its $482 million in 1995 funding cut in half under the GOP proposal.
Clinton objected to cuts in these categories: $619 million for education and training, $500 million for environmental protection, $230 million for housing and veterans' programs, $20 million for nutritional programs, $31 million for crime prevention and $14 million in spending for banks for poorer communities.
But Republicans sharply disputed his claims that the bill was shot through with pork. They pointed to spending that they had restored to meet Clinton's conditions, including money for AIDS research, breast cancer screening, childhood immunization, aid to Jordan, and Head Start preschool programs.
"After we had done our part, you dropped the ball, instead opting to make a political statement," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in a joint statement.
"If he wants to run for reelection, he ought to run in favor of a balanced budget," Gingrich said.
Still, some aides predicted that the denunciations would rapidly give way to negotiation.
"There wasn't a holy crusade on this from either side," said one senior Democratic aide. "They should be able to come together on an agreement and get it done fairly quickly."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston (R-La.) said that Clinton may be able to claim political points from the bill that results. "He may be able to say he met Goliath and won, stared down the Congress," he said.
One Senate aide said that the veto had served to "buck up the Democrats, to show them that Clinton would, in fact, do this." He said it allowed Clinton to compare his spending priorities to the Republicans in a way that could build political support.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
On the Cutting Board
Highlights of legislation containing $16.4 billion in cuts from existing programs that was vetoed by President Clinton on Wednesday. Figures are in millions of dollars.
HOUSING Public housing, 5,031 Rental assistance, 1,177 ***
EDUCATION Goals 2000 education reform, 92 School-to-work job counseling, 12 Education for disadvantaged, 75 Remove drugs from schools, 236 Vocational and adult education, 91 Student financial aid, 85 Higher education, 58 ***
LABOR Youth job training, 272 Summer youth jobs, 872 ***
HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES National Institutes of Health, 70 Home heating aid, 319 Job opportunities and basic skills, 330 ***
TRANSPORTATION Airport and airway improvements, 2,094 Mass transit capital grants, 34 Magnetic levitation transit system, 250 ***
FOREIGN AID Aid for former Soviet states, 25 Development assistance, 41 Economic support, 25 ***
OTHER PROGRAMS National Service Program, 210 Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 92 National Endowment for the Arts, 5 National Endowment for the Humanities, 5 Food for women, infants, children, 20 Environmental Protection Agency, 1,510 NASA, 138 National Science Foundation, 132 Veterans medical care-construction, 81 New federal buildings, 580 National Park Service, 42 National biological survey, 15 Congressional operations, 16 ***
EXTRA SPENDING FOR
Anti-terrorism: In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton sought $142 million. House-Senate bargainers approved about $240 million. That includes $35 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and $67 million to demolish the Murrah Federal Office Building and replace it.
Natural disasters: Clinton sought $6.7 billion of aid for California and other states suffering from recent emergencies. The bill provided the $6.7 billion.
Debt relief for Jordan: Clinton sought to relieve Jordan of $275 million worth of debt owed to the United States, and the bill provided that money.