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Republicans in Congress Breaking Ranks With Bush

Some GOP lawmakers are blocking policies on overtime and Cuban travel. It could set stage for veto showdowns.

September 26, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the final weeks before an election, when political parties usually try to display unity, the Republican-controlled Congress is butting heads with the Republican president.

Whether the issue is eligibility for overtime, travel to Cuba or the privatization of government workers, significant numbers of GOP lawmakers are parting company with their president.

It's not that they're being disloyal, say these Republican renegades. It's just that their home-state political interests sometimes collide with what the national party wants.

"This is the political season, an election year not just for the president but for all of the House and a third of the Senate," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "We get a little weak-kneed and cast votes of self-preservation every now and then."

He cautioned against interpreting any issues as stinging defeats for the president, "if for no other reason than because none of them have been signed into law."

Republican leaders in Congress will still have a chance, during House-Senate negotiations on final bills, to strip out the provisions that could set up embarrassing election-year veto showdowns between the president and members of his own party. Bush, who has yet to veto a bill, has a chance to become the first president without a veto since James Garfield, who was shot in 1881 after four months in office and died weeks later.

The White House professed not to be alarmed by Congress' independent streak. Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the White House budget office, said time remained to straighten out differences between Congress and the administration. The veto was a last resort, he said; "we're not there yet."

Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel also played down the election-year disagreements between Congress and the president. On the big issues, he said, the president would win. For example, Congress last week sent Bush a bill extending some of his cherished tax cuts. Only two Republicans in the Senate and none in the House voted no.

But there are plenty of issues where differences exist, and more are on the horizon.

Before adjourning for the election, Congress is expected to approve spending bills packed with pet projects that help lawmakers win favor with voters back home, despite the White House's appeals for greater fiscal discipline.

The new overtime rule, which took effect Aug. 23, revamped the definition of which workers are entitled to overtime pay. Some workers, at their employers' discretion, could be given compensatory time off for extra work. Although the administration contended that far more workers would become eligible for overtime pay than would lose it, organized labor said 6 million workers could lose overtime pay.

The House voted to block the administration from implementing the overtime rule when 22 Republicans joined forces with Democrats. A Senate panel has recommended that the Senate follow suit, even though the White House has threatened a veto.

Many Republicans who voted to block the overtime rule come from labor-heavy states.

Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania said he did not see his position as a vote against the president. "I voted with my constituents," he said.

The day after voting to block the overtime rule, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), was at Bush's side in West Virginia campaigning for his reelection.

"The president understands that I've got to take care of my district," she said, noting that many of her constituents were "feeding their families on the work they do for overtime."

Two Iowa Republicans who voted with the Democrats to block the overtime rules, Reps. James A. Leach and Jim Nussle represent districts carried by Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. Although the congressmen do not appear in danger of losing their seats, "they did not want to give their opponents an issue to use to rally labor voters," said University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire.

The House also defied Bush when it voted last week to overturn an administration policy that made it harder for Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba. A Senate committee has recommended going further: It wants to end the four-decade-old ban on travel to Cuba.

Such a move could damage Bush's bid to win the backing of anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Florida.

The White House budget office said in a message to lawmakers that lifting sanctions on travel to Cuba would provide a "helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime at the expense of the Cuban people."

Proponents of lifting the travel restrictions include many farm-state Republicans who see Cuba as offering new sales opportunities for agricultural products.

With 39 Republicans breaking ranks, the House approved an amendment to a spending bill that would allow Cubans living in the United States to travel to the island once a year and stay as long as they wanted. That would overturn the administration restriction that limited Cuban Americans to a single 14-day visit every three years.

In addition to the votes on the overtime rule and Cuban travel, lawmakers in both chambers are pushing to block a Bush cost-cutting initiative to turn over more government jobs to the private sector.

And they moved to provide less money than the White House sought for several Bush initiatives, including aid to community colleges, a program to teach Americans cultural and artistic heritage, and an effort to spur political and economic reforms in Third World countries in exchange for foreign aid.

House-Senate negotiators are also considering other measures that Bush has threatened to veto -- postponement of another round of military base closings, more spending for new highways than Bush favors and a return to tighter media ownership rules.

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