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Bush waves his veto pen

Times Staff Writers

washington -- President Bush warned Monday that he would use his veto pen to thwart any congressional attempt to force his hand by passing a catchall spending bill.

The fiscal year ends in days, and Congress has not completed work on any of the 12 spending bills it is supposed to pass by Oct. 1 to fund government agencies, Bush noted during remarks to business leaders visiting the White House. One way Democratic leaders may try to secure the funding they want is by lumping the bills together into a trillion-dollar omnibus bill.

Bush complained that would make it easier for lawmakers to sneak in private spending projects.

“If they think that by waiting until just before they leave for the year to send me a bill that is way over budget and thicker than a phone book -- if they think that’s going to force me to sign it -- it’s not,” Bush said.

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Democrats accused the president of deliberately fomenting tension.

Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), called the phone book reference “pretty funny.” She said: “His budget request is the size of a phone book.”

Bush has been under pressure to rein in spending from deficit hawks within the GOP, who are unhappy with his record on the issue. Also, a new book by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan takes Bush to task for an “unwillingness to wield his veto against out-of-control spending.”

During Bush’s first term, he did not veto a single bill. In the last 14 months, he has vetoed three: two that would have loosened restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research and one that tied money for the Iraq war to a withdrawal timeline.

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Democrats have not been able to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. But a $23-billion water bill that the Senate approved Monday might be the first to jump that hurdle -- and test Bush’s resolve on spending disputes.

The bill passed 81 to 12, easily surpassing the two-thirds threshold. Thirty-six Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill, which authorizes a raft of projects sought by lawmakers from both parties. The funding, however, still would have to be appropriated in separate spending bills.

The measure passed the House this year on a 381-40 vote and now goes to Bush -- who has said he will veto it.

Conservative Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, usually an administration loyalist, was one of several Republicans who urged Bush to back off his threat. Inhofe said the strong support for the water measure “sends a clear message to the president: Don’t veto this critically important infrastructure bill.”

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The measure authorizes spending on hundreds of projects across the country, including millions of dollars to protect the Gulf Coast from storms.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the legislation authorized more than $1.3 billion for projects in California, including $25 million for revitalizing the Los Angeles River and $106 million to continue shoring up levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

With both chambers of Congress in the hands of Democrats for the first time in his presidency, Bush has promised to veto every spending bill he dislikes. And that has set the stage for a confrontation reminiscent of the budget battles in the early years of the Clinton administration.

At the moment, however, few expect government shutdowns like those in 1995-96. Congress this week is expected to approve a stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating at current spending levels until mid-November.

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Democrats are eager to restore or boost funding for domestic programs that they say were neglected under the Republican-led Congress. They also criticize the president for seeking cuts in such areas as clean-water projects and housing while spending billions of dollars on the war in Iraq.

“The president has no credibility on matters of fiscal responsibility” due to his record, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement.

“I urge the president to drop the partisan rhetoric, put down his veto pen, and work with the New Direction Congress to complete this year’s spending bills,” Pelosi said.

Although no spending bills have reached Bush’s desk, Congress has made progress in approving them. All 12 have been adopted by the House, and the Senate has passed four that must be reconciled with the House versions.

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In addition to the spending bills and the water legislation, the White House has threatened to veto an expansion of the children’s health insurance program that Congress is expected to approve soon.

The dispute over the water bill puts Bush at odds not only with many GOP lawmakers but also with business and farm groups that normally are his allies.

Countering Bush’s concerns about the amount of spending it would authorize, the bill’s supporters point out that Congress has not approved a similar bill since 2000.

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said delaying work on many of the projects covered by the bill would only lead to higher repair and building costs in the future.

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Among the Republicans who joined Inhofe in beseeching the White House to back off its veto threat was Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri. “If there is a veto, I look forward to overriding it on a bipartisan basis,” he said. “If there were to be a veto, the unfortunate message for water states and agricultural states in the Midwest is that water resources are not a high priority of this administration.”

Bush can expect more unity among GOP lawmakers in the fight over the 12 annual spending bills. One reason is that Republican leaders have cited the growth in government spending under their rule for angering conservative voters and helping cause the party’s defeat in the 2006 congressional election.

Democrats argue that the difference between their spending bills and the president’s budget request is relatively small -- $22 billion more than his $933-billion proposal, an increase of about 2%.

Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), said that $19 billion of the $22 billion that Bush had attacked as excessive was “just restoration of cuts from what was approved last year. He cut $19 billion, and the Democratic Congress restored it. In essence, you’re talking about a $3-billion differential.”

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But such arguments held little sway with the president Monday.

“Some in Congress will tell you that $22 billion is not a lot of money,” Bush said. “As business leaders, you know better.”

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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