President Clinton, in a preview of coming budget battles with Congress, cast his first veto Wednesday as he rejected a bill to rescind $16.4 billion in previously approved appropriations for education, environment and other domestic programs.
“I cannot in good conscience sign a bill that cuts education to save pet congressional projects,” Clinton said during a sweltering Rose Garden ceremony. “That is old politics. It is wrong.”
Republicans countered that it was Clinton who was playing politics with the bill, but they acknowledged they don’t have the votes to override the veto and said they would seek a compromise.
Clinton and the Republicans agree on about 90 percent of the bill; at issue are about 10 percent of the spending cuts that he considers too harsh. Clinton has identified other programs - such as courthouse construction and highway spending - that he would cut instead.
In vetoing his first bill, Clinton was trying to stand up to the Republicans who have dominated the political arena since the November election.
“A veto strategy is essential to get the president back into the bargaining game here. Without it, he is defenseless,” said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank.
The veto is a potentially powerful tool for Clinton because it takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to override a veto - and that rarely happens.
But one risk for Clinton could come if he pushes the strategy too far.
“I don’t think he can afford to simply be an obstructionist,” said David Keene, director of the American Conservative Union and a Republican consultant. “That’s the political danger - that he is in essence posturing himself as the defender of the past at a time when the country wants to move forward.”
Despite such risks, even Keene said, “I don’t think he has much choice … He’s got to hold his core constituency together. That requires him to fight with Republicans on the Hill.”
The initial White House goal is to show strength through veto confrontations, and thus define the differences that divide Clinton and Democrats from Republicans.
As he did Wednesday, Clinton usually contends that Republican veto-bait measures go too far, would hurt ordinary Americans and often are designed to benefit the rich. But once that “definitional work” is done, White House advisers hope the mere threat of future vetoes will drive Republicans to compromises Clinton can sign. Then both sides could avoid blame for fostering gridlock and claim victory for having achieved things together.
The vetoed measure, which the Republican-controlled Congress officially delivered to Clinton Tuesday night, would have cut spending for education, housing, job training, the environment and the National Service volunteer program.
It also contained $7.3 billion in new spending, including $6.7 billion for disaster assistance - such as for California flood and earthquake victims - $275 million in debt relief for Jordan and $250 million for antiterrorism initiatives and cleanup following the Oklahoma City bombing, all of which Clinton supported.
“The president’s veto kind of compels us to address the issue,” said Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “So we’ll sit down with the House and Senate leadership and with the White House and negotiate a new bill.”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who is running for president, portrayed the veto as obstructionism by Clinton to avoid balancing the budget.
“It’s time for the president to stop being an obstacle in the road and join us in our responsibility to secure the nation’s economic future,” Dole said on the Senate floor.
“We met the administration more than half way” in the vetoed bill, Dole said. “But President Clinton missed a valuable opportunity to join us in cutting spending.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said last week he expected a showdown with Clinton over vetoes later this summer. Gingrich vowed to roll any of Clinton’s vetoed spending bills into an omnibus package and then dare Clinton to veto the works.
xxxx Power of the veto George Bush vetoed 46 bills as president, while Ronald Reagan vetoed 78. Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed more bills than any other president, 635.