WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Thursday night narrowly sustained President Bush’s veto of a Democratic health and education spending bill.
The 277-141 vote was uncomfortably close for Republicans, falling just two votes short of the two-thirds tally required to overturn Bush’s veto. But as they did on three previous occasions, GOP leaders managed their ranks to make sure Bush would not be embarrassed.
Some of the congressional combatants already were looking past the veto in hopes that it might prompt the White House to negotiate on that measure and 10 other bills that provide money to Cabinet departments for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
The close tally demonstrated again that many of Bush’s GOP allies in Congress want to spend more than the president on social programs. Taken as a group, however, Republicans aren’t willing to go as far above Bush’s budget as Democrats – and are unwilling to hand him a loss in such a defining confrontation with Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters that when Congress returns in December from a two-week Thanksgiving recess, Democrats would send Bush a catchall spending bill combining Congress’ unfinished budget work – after cutting about $11 billion from them.
Democrats have written domestic spending bills adding more than $22 billion to Bush’s budget, prompting a wave of veto threats from the White House. Reid promised to cut that amount in half, saying it was a fair compromise.
“We’re going to bundle these bills up and send a bill splitting the difference,” Reid told reporters. If Bush vetoes that bill, Democrats might just put the government on autopilot at current spending levels for weeks or months.
“If the proposal is to split the difference,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, a New York moderate serving as GOP bill manager for the health, education and job training bill, “I would advise the president to take yes for an answer.”
The Democratic-driven education and health bill contains $151 billion in discretionary appropriations under lawmakers’ direct control. More than any other spending bill, it defines the differences between Bush and his Democratic rivals.
In recent years, Bush has sought to cut the labor, health and education measure below the prior year’s level. Lawmakers always have rejected the cuts, but the budget that Bush presented in February sought almost $4 billion in cuts from levels for the 2007 budget year, the largest he’s ever recommended.
Democrats responded by adding $10 billion to Bush’s request for the 2008 bill, with another $2 billion in future-year funding devoted to education. The increases cover a broad spectrum of social programs backed by Democrats and moderate Republicans.