IMAGE: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., holds a news conference after the Senate voted 79-14 to pass a $23 billion water resources bill, overriding President Bush's veto.
updated 11/12/2007 10:23:08 AM ET 2007-11-12T15:23:08

President Bush may have lost a veto battle last week on a water projects bill, but GOP allies in Congress are sticking with him in another, bigger veto showdown over government spending.

Democrats are struggling to draw up a playbook to finish this year's spending bills for Cabinet departments, the most basic job of Congress. While the new budget year began Oct. 1, Democrats have completed action on just two bills - funding defense and health and education programs.

Some of the Democrats' early decisions have appeared to cede even more leverage to Bush, while internal divisions within the party have contributed to the delays in getting bills finished and sent to the White House.

On three votes last week, House and Senate Republicans stood with Bush to demonstrate they will sustain his looming veto of the health and education spending bill, a top Democratic priority.

As Republicans learned so painfully when President Clinton used veto after veto to beat them during the 1990s, the veto pen is the ultimate weapon in legislative warfare. And its power is especially potent in situations like the present, which deals with spending bills for agency budgets that lawmakers are eager to pass.

Clinton used vetoes to protect domestic programs like education, Medicare and welfare from GOP cuts in the early days of Republican control. Later, when a budget surplus appeared, he extracted big spending increases for education and other domestic programs.

Bush, on the other hand, is using veto threats to cut back the Democrats' spending, trying to force Congress to stick to his budget cap for the one-third of the budget covered by the 12 annual appropriations bills.

There's plenty of political subtext as well.

Winning back the conservative brand
Republicans are still steaming from last year's elections, when many of their core supporters faulted them for losing their way on spending and giving up their right to paint themselves as the party of fiscal discipline and limited government.

The ongoing clash is part of a plan to get the GOP's fiscal conservatism "brand" back.

Bush has requested $933 billion in overall spending for the government departments and agencies for fiscal 2008, and has vowed to veto any legislation that spends more, with the exception of about $4 billion for veterans programs.

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But Democrats want to add $23 billion for domestic programs. Old-fashioned dealmaking would have the combatants split their differences. Instead, Bush and Capitol Hill Republicans are turning the screws on Democrats.

"The president has made it very clear that the top line is the top line," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Friday. "The size of the pie is set. The slices he's willing to work with them on."

'Take it or leave it'
Top lawmakers like House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., appear to be taking Bush at his word. Obey was in the middle of the battles of the 1990s, helping Clinton extract concessions with veto threats, and he's well aware of Bush's advantages.

"Yes, he used his veto, but Clinton never said he wouldn't negotiate. Clinton never said it was my way or the highway," Obey said. "The difference is Bush is saying, 'Take it or leave it.'"

Some Democrats - and more than a few Republicans - hope that Bush will soften. Maybe after Bush gets a few vetoes out of his system, he'll be ready to negotiate, or so the thinking goes.

Some Republicans acknowledge much of Bush's budget is unrealistic - with cuts to health research, education and popular water and sewer projects just for starters - and they're almost as eager to see negotiations as Democrats are. Video: Bush vetoes child insurance bill

But in a move that left some Congress-watchers scratching their heads, Democrats have given up much of what leverage they had by sending Bush the only spending bill he really seems to care about, a $471 billion budget for the Pentagon. There had been speculation they would hold the measure in reserve to try to force the White House to negotiate, but with that bill in hand, Bush is free to play hardball on the rest.

One pocket or the other
Democrats are so flummoxed that not only have they delayed getting bills to Bush to veto, they've held back bills he's either going to sign or might be overridden on.

Some Democrats, like Obey, are taking seriously Bush's threats to use vetoes to force them to stick to his overall "top line" meaning he will push harder for cuts elsewhere.

For example, if Bush signs the veterans bill, he says $4 billion would have to be cut from other programs. If Congress overrides Bush on the homeland security bill, perhaps $2 billion would have to be cut from other programs.

"They're all interdependent," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., manager for the homeland security budget. "You don't want to pass one bill if it gives you a worse problem with other bills."

Lawmakers such as Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, say it's not realistic for Bush to insist on cuts to other programs after signing increases above his budget for veterans' programs.

Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, D-Ill., who worked in the Clinton White House, says Bush's position isn't as strong as Republicans think.

Clinton was on his heels after the 1994 elections swept out congressional Democrats, but regained strength after winning a 1995-96 budget fight with Republicans, who were blamed by the public for forcing a partial government shutdown.

"Their calculation that this is their '95 showdown. First of all, President Clinton was in the middle of his first term going into an election. They're in the back end of their second term, and the clock's ticking," says Emmanuel. "Clinton was defending Medicare and Medicaid and education and the environment .... (Bush is) vetoing increases for the National Institutes of Health."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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