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Bush vetoes domestic spending bill

Times Staff Writers

Intensifying his battle with Congress over federal spending, President Bush on Tuesday vetoed an appropriations bill for the first time, rejecting $150.7 billion in spending for school aid, healthcare and other domestic programs.

But as he complained about the cost of that bill, which would have increased spending on these programs by 4.3% over last year, Bush signed a $471-billion defense appropriations bill that pushed up military spending by more than 9.5%.

And he urged Congress to quickly appropriate $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Congress’ responsibility is clear: It should not go home for the Christmas holidays without giving our troops on the front lines the funds they need to succeed,” Bush told business leaders in southern Indiana after excoriating Democrats for mismanaging the federal budget.

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The president’s veto and his complaints were greeted with derision by congressional Democrats, who were quick to point out Bush’s six-year record of approving unbalanced budgets passed by Republican Congresses.

“It is patently absurd that President Bush, whose irresponsible policies instigated record budget deficits and added more than $3 trillion to the national debt, now wants to pretend that he is somehow an exemplar of fiscal responsibility,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Hoyer said House Democrats would try to override the veto this week.

Backed by many Republicans, Democrats last week for the first time overrode a Bush veto, enacting a $23-billion bill authorizing spending for levees, dams and other water infrastructure projects.

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But the escalating battle over other domestic spending may not be resolved as quickly. Although the spending bill vetoed Tuesday has attracted some GOP support, Democrats do not have enough Republican votes in the House or Senate to override Bush’s veto.

And with the president and congressional Democrats apparently determined to square off over other federal spending bills, it is unclear how and when the two sides will resolve a conflict both see as politically advantageous.

Democrats and Republicans will also soon battle over a supplemental measure to fund the war in Iraq. House Democrats plan to vote as soon as today on a $50-billion Iraq spending bill that would impose a new timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Confident that they have public opinion on their side, Democrats are pushing to increase spending on domestic priorities they say have been neglected as the Bush administration has spent billions of dollars on the war in Iraq.

Democrats writing their first spending bills in 12 years have tried to boost funding for new roads, healthcare for veterans, public housing and other programs, in many cases reversing cuts proposed by the White House.

The appropriations bill vetoed Tuesday -- which would have funded the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education -- contained substantial increases for Head Start, reading and math instruction, and other programs targeted at poor children.

It appropriated additional money for community health centers and reversed proposed cuts in funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health.

And the bill included new money for programs for low-income Americans, including job training, home heating assistance and rural healthcare.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called the measure “a bipartisan and fiscally responsible bill that addresses the priorities of the American people: education for our children, assistance in paying skyrocketing energy costs, veterans’ healthcare, and other urgent health research on cancer and other serious medical problems.”

As Democrats have increasingly done, Pelosi also contrasted that with the rising price tag of the war in Iraq, which some estimates put at more than $500 billion since 2003.

The president was defiant Tuesday in the face of the Democratic criticism.

“Their majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it’s acting like a teenager with a new credit card,” the president said while visiting an Indiana congressional district that Republicans hope to retake next year after losing it in 2006.

Bush criticized Democrats for approving a bill that exceeded his budget request for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments by $10 billion. He blasted Democratic leaders for failing to finish appropriations bills before the fiscal year began Oct. 1. (The defense bill signed Tuesday will also keep the government running until Dec. 14, extending the deadline for Congress and the president to enact spending bills.)

And Bush singled out several of the more than 2,000 pet projects -- or earmarks -- that lawmakers inserted in the bill, including a sailing school and a Portuguese language program.

“Congress owes the taxpayers much better than this effort,” Bush said.

The critique is a new one this year for a president who inherited a budget surplus and presided in his first six years over deficits that have ballooned the national debt to more than $9 trillion.

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Since 2001, Bush signed at least 50 spending bills passed by Republicans that exceeded his budget requests, according to House Appropriations Committee records. He did not veto a single one.

Nor did he veto any bills to protest the explosion of earmarks under Republican Congresses. (Bush has vetoed only six bills, the fewest by any president since James A. Garfield, who was shot in 1881 after four months in office and died weeks later.)

But the president’s attempt to seize the mantle of fiscal responsibility has been eagerly cheered by congressional Republicans, some of whom attribute their electoral losses last year to their own fiscal irresponsibility.

“The president was right to veto this pork-filled legislation,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “It is completely irresponsible for members of Congress to demand that taxpayers bankroll pet projects . . . when they are dealing with spiking gasoline prices, which could rise another 20 cents per gallon during the holidays, and other cost-of-living increases.”

Boehner and his counterpart in the Senate -- Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- all year have prevented Democrats from getting veto-proof majorities on major legislation.

Democratic officials concede that the Republican leaders will probably do so again on this spending bill.

noam.levey@latimes.com

james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com

Levey reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Indiana.


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