Vetoes Carry Risks for GOP

Posted June 18, 2007 at 6:25pm

The looming veto fight over Homeland Security funding holds political peril and promise, as Republicans seek to rebuild a record of fiscal stewardship while Democrats plan to blast them as caring more about preserving tax cuts for the wealthy than in investing in security.

Veto showdowns can have unpredictable political consequences, and with the White House shying away from a veto threat on the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill, Democrats view the Homeland Security spending bill as one of the most difficult for President Bush to sustain a veto on.

A veto would give the majority a golden opportunity to blast Republicans for shortchanging local police, fire departments and even border security. And if Bush has a change of heart and signs the bill, Democrats say, they will be able to take credit for security upgrades that 150 Congressional Republicans voted against on the floor.

“We win if he signs it, I think they lose if he vetoes it,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “What they are simply doing is denying the Department of Homeland Security the funds necessary to protect America. We’ll certainly let their constituents know that they failed to provide the resources.”

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) also uncorked on Bush, ripping him as the biggest impediment to Homeland Security funding since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The president has only one priority and that is to preserve his tax cuts for the super-wealthy,” Obey charged.

Democrats expressed hope that Bush would reconsider the threat to veto the bill in light of his offer to add billions in emergency spending for border security as part of a deal to restart immigration legislation, but that seems highly unlikely.

House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said Republicans believe they have credibility on security and can successfully wage a veto fight over the bill, which the administration feels is bloated with $2.1 billion in unnecessary spending.

“Republicans created the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans created the TSA, Republicans have had to listen to whining by the Democrats to everything we have done,” Putnam said. “There is no downside to vetoing a bill or sustaining a veto on a bill that prevents the border fence from being constructed and doubles the increase in spending beyond the president’s request.”

The party’s conservative wing has been itching for a fight.

“I would love for the president to veto this bill and take this fight to the American people,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “America needs to know the Republicans stand for accountability and fiscal responsibility.”

Hensarling added, “No one is going to believe that President Bush is weak on homeland security, regardless of what people think of the president.”

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who successfully led the fight to get more than 146 Republicans to sign on to a letter vowing to sustain a veto on any appropriations bill exceeding the president’s request, said the Republicans will be able to take credit for saving billions if they hold firm.

“We’ve got to stop this spending spree,” he said.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, told the White House to back away from any veto threat on the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill, Putnam said, because Republicans want to support the troops.

The presidential Statement of Administration Policy on the military construction bill exempted that bill from an earlier threat by Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman to recommend vetoes on any bill that exceeds the president’s spending request.

“Funding for our troops, past and present, should not be held hostage to Congress’ attempts to provide irresponsible increases in domestic spending,” the June 13 statement said. The statement came almost simultaneously with Republicans reaching the crucial threshold last week of 146 Members to sustain vetoes.

“I don’t think there ever was going to be a veto” on the military construction bill, said one Republican leadership aide. “The optics are bad. The president with the support of Republicans is sending our troops to war in Iraq and some are coming back with terrible wounds. We don’t need to be seen as nickel-and-diming those expenses and giving Democrats a win.”

Even Hensarling voted for the bill, despite its spending $3.8 billion more than the president sought.

“We’re conservatives, but we’re not anarchists, and if there was ever a moral obligation to a group of American citizens it is our veterans, and it’s a time of war,” Hensarling said.

But he added he would still uphold a veto, if the president changes his mind.

“I personally hope it’s not this one,” he said.