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GOP Senators Spurn Bush's Order to Cut Bill

With enough votes to beat a veto, they refuse to weed out pet projects tacked on to a spending measure the president otherwise supports.

April 27, 2006|Richard Simon and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Defying a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday refused to pare back an emergency spending bill sought by President Bush that lawmakers had expanded to include their own pet projects, which included items as diverse as aid for farmers and money to reroute a Mississippi railroad.

The vote was a direct rebuff of Bush by a number of GOP senators and underscored a growing party rift at a time when the president's popularity has sunk to new lows in public opinion polls.

"I might be intimidated by my constituents, but not the president," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in an interview.

The Senate vote against cutting the $106.5-billion bill was a lopsided 72-26, more than enough to override a veto.

About half of the chamber's Republicans joined most of its Democrats to reject the reduction proposal.

The bulk of the measure's money would pay for the ongoing expenses for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

But earlier this week, Bush said he would veto the bill if its bottom line was not trimmed.

Last month, the House passed a $91.9-billion spending bill, which closely tracked with Bush's initial request.

Despite the Senate vote, several GOP lawmakers pledged to continue to try to cut the bill's cost.

They included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who had encouraged Bush to issue his veto threat -- an unusual step, given that the bill was crafted by other Republicans.

Bush has yet to veto a bill during his presidency.

Ultimately, Congress may send him a measure stripped of much of the funding he opposes.

"The bill we are debating is supposed to be about emergency spending -- it's not an invitation to go on a shopping spree," Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) said, pressing the case for cuts.

Still, the willingness of so many other Republicans to stand by the added spending requests starkly reflected the new political reality on Capitol Hill.

Until recently, Republicans almost always marched behind Bush's priorities -- especially on issues involving the war on terrorism.

But Wednesday's vote illustrated his diminished clout, as well as lawmakers' differing political pressures.

Although Bush is not on the ballot this year, many GOP incumbents are. And they want to show constituents they are tending to their needs, even if that means running afoul of the White House.

The Mississippi railroad project has emerged as the most controversial addition to the spending bill.

Lott and the state's other senator, Republican Thad Cochran, said the railroad needed to be relocated for safety reasons. The tracks run along the Gulf Coast and could be easily damaged in another hurricane, they said.

The White House budget office has objected to using taxpayer funds to relocate a privately owned rail line. Officials have noted that the railroad owner, CSX Corp., has been using its own money to repair damage to the tracks caused by Hurricane Katrina.

But Lott, who served in the House for 16 years before winning his Senate seat in 1988, made clear he would not be swayed by such arguments.

"The very idea that presidents, Republican or Democrat, have the only say over what is in a budget is outrageous," Lott told reporters. "I got elected. I was here when Bush got here, and I'll probably be here when he's gone."

Lott dismissed Bush's veto threat as "totally irrelevant at this point," given that any bill the Senate passed would have to be reconciled with the version that the House approved.

"I guess he's under pressure to veto something," Lott said. He added, "Thank you for your input, Mr. President."

The emergency spending measure also became the latest battleground in Congress' debate on overhauling the nation's immigration system when the Senate approved, 59-39, a provision that would allocate $1.9 billion to tighten border security.

The new money aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S. would not increase the bill's cost because it would be offset by cuts to defense-related spending in other parts of the measure.

Some Republicans said the provision could improve the prospects for passing separate legislation to toughen border enforcement while creating a guest-worker program and a potential path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

The immigration bill has stalled in part because Republicans disagree about whether it should focus solely on border security.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the spending approved Wednesday could help build support for the broader approach to immigration, "because then we can convince our constituents that our first and most important priority is border security."

Democrats were skeptical that the spending provision for border security would affect the immigration stalemate.

"We hope it works, but it's too soon to tell," said a senior Democratic leadership aide who requested anonymity when discussing the legislative jockeying.

A number of Democrats opposed the border provision, saying that paying for it could harm U.S. troops by reducing defense-related funding. The foes included Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) broke with party colleagues to support the $1.9-billion proposal. "This is what people are calling my office and saying -- that we need to secure the border."

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