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Senate hands Bush his first veto override

Times Staff Writer

Congress delivered its first override of a veto by President Bush on Thursday, giving final approval to a $23-billion bill that authorizes water projects eagerly sought by lawmakers from both parties.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted to override the veto, 79 to 14, with a majority of Republicans and Democrats rejecting Bush’s assertion that the bill was fiscally irresponsible. The House voted earlier this week to override the veto.

“I have complete respect for the president of the United States, and I don’t like to vote against him, but he’s just wrong to veto this bill,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said.

The override vote is expected to intensify the battle between the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress over the federal budget.

Bush has threatened to veto most of the appropriations bills, contending they call for too much spending. Democrats are seeking to spend more than Bush would on health, education, the environment and other domestic programs.

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A number of Republicans said that although they broke with the president over the water bill, they would support his other efforts to rein in overall spending.

“I’m going to be supporting him on most of his vetoes,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who voted to override. “But in this case, I believe that this bill is in the best interests of the country. I know it’s very beneficial to my state.”

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said the White House was disappointed but not surprised by the veto. “We understand that members of Congress are going to support the projects in their districts,” she said. “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 Water Resources Development Act authorizes about 900 projects, including millions of dollars to protect the Gulf Coast from storms, restore the Florida Everglades and replace seven Depression-era locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

For California, it authorizes $1.3 billion for projects, including $25 million to revitalize the Los Angeles River and $106 million to shore up levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Brian M. Riedl, a budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, called the override “a disappointing loss for fiscal restraint” but noted that “congressional Republicans are much more united against the appropriations bills.”

One of the first spending bills expected to go to Bush will probably get his signature -- a $471-billion defense-spending measure for the current fiscal year, which began about six weeks ago. The measure, which does not include Bush’s $196-billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was overwhelmingly approved by the House and is expected to clear the Senate.

It includes $500 million for fighting wildfires, including the recent Southern California blazes, and for steps to reduce the risk of fires. The bill includes stopgap funding to keep the government running through Dec. 14 and give Congress and the White House more time to settle spending differences.

But the bipartisanship reflected by the vote on the defense bill may be short-lived.

Congress completed work Thursday night on a $151-billion bill boosting funding for health, education and job-training programs, but Bush has threatened a veto because it exceeds his request by nearly $10 billion.

Democrats were working to revive their effort to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by attaching strings to a $50-billion war-funding measure. The measure would require redeployment to begin immediately with a goal to complete it by Dec. 15, 2008; would limit the combat role of U.S. forces; and would require U.S. interrogators to follow the Army Field Manual’s prohibitions against torture, which include a ban on waterboarding.

Bush, visiting a military rehabilitation center in San Antonio, called on Congress to meet his requests for defense spending. “Congress needs to take prompt action on measures that will send a clear signal that we support our troops in the field and we support them when they’re coming off the field -- that we support those in harm’s way, and we support those through the best possible care and rehabilitation facilities,” he said.

Republicans defended their vote to override Bush on the water bill, saying the projects must still win funding through the appropriations process. In the Senate, 34 Republicans joined 43 Democrats and two independents to override the veto. Voting against the override were 12 Republicans and two Democrats.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and an author of the bill, took delight in the override, noting, “This is only the 107th time it has been done in the history of the country.”

She added: “I think we sent a message as Republicans and Democrats to the executive branch. . . . Why should we have to fight over everything? We shouldn’t have to argue over making sure that our infrastructure is strong.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined Boxer in voting to override the veto.

The bill was the fifth vetoed by Bush, but the president has increasingly waved his veto pen since Democrats took control of Congress. The override is the first since 1998, when Congress reversed President Clinton’s veto of $287 million worth of military construction projects from a spending bill.

In the House, 138 Republicans joined 223 Democrats earlier this week to override the veto. A veto override requires a two-thirds majority of those present in each house.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in San Antonio contributed to this report.


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