President George Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act comes as Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress move closer to a showdown over spending on the federal budget.
The House and Senate are expected to move swiftly next week to override Bush's veto of a bill loaded with water-related projects eagerly sought by members of both parties, from shoring up California's levees to protecting the Gulf Coast from hurricanes.
In his veto message, Bush said, “This bill lacks fiscal discipline.''
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, reaffirmed Friday that he intends to lead the effort in the Senate to override Bush's veto. Because of the overwhelming bi-partisan votes in both the Senate and the House earlier this year, Inhofe said he is confident that Congress will successfully override the veto.
On Sep. 24, the Senate voted in favor of the WRDA bill by a margin of 81-12. The House approved the bill in August by a vote of 381-40. As the ranking member and former chairman of the committee, Inhofe has made passage of the WRDA bill a top priority.
“I am committed to working closely with my Senate colleagues to override President Bush's veto of this critically important national infrastructure bill,” Inhofe said.
“Infrastructure is an essential part of our nation's economy, and we should not understate the importance of addressing our infrastructure needs. The WRDA bill makes significant progress in addressing our water resources needs in a responsible manner. As a fiscal conservative, I certainly appreciate and share the President's concerns over ‘excessive spending' by the Federal government. The fact is, though, that the WRDA bill is not a spending bill; it is an authorizing bill. It simply sets out which projects and programs are allowed to get in line for future funding.”
Inhofe said uthorization is the “best tool” for keeping discipline over the annual appropriations process.
“Every day that goes by without enacting a WRDA bill is another day we allow unnecessary pressure to build on the appropriators to short-circuit the authorization-then-appropriations process.,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said, “I am 100 percent confident that we can override this veto.''
The bi-partisan response to the veto underscores the difficulty the president faces in his new zeal to hold down federal spending, especially when it affects highly visible construction projects cherished by lawmakers.
For Oklahoma, the bill carries a list of provisions and authorizations including $30 million to complete the relocation assistance for residents in the Tar Creek communities of Picher, Cardin, and Hockerville where residents are at risk from subsidence and environmental contamination.
J.D. Strong, chief of staff for the state secretary of the environment, said Friday that the secretary was disappointed at the news of the veto.
“It means further delays in getting funding for the buyout (of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville residents, but we are hopeful that Congresss will be quick in its work to try and overturn that veto and get that legislation inacted shortly,” Strong said.
In addition, the WRDA bill provides the authority EPA requires to re-evaluate remediation plans at Tar Creek to conduct both remediation and resident assistance. Finally, it preserves the legal claims the Quapaw Tribe is pursuing on behalf of its members.
“This will be the first veto this Congress has overridden, and it was all about getting parochial water projects back to their home districts,'' said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The bill would authorize more than 900 projects, such as the restoration of the Florida Everglades and the replacement of seven Depression-era locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers that farm groups say is critical for shipping grain.
It is only the fifth bill that Bush has vetoed - the fewest by any president since James A. Garfield, who was shot in 1881 after four months in office and died weeks later.
Bush has vetoed two bills that would have expanded federal support for embryonic stem-cell research, a bill to pay for the Iraq war that included a timeline for withdrawing troops and another that would have expanded a children's health insurance program.
The water bill is supported by a number of Bush's usual allies, including business and farm groups, and even brought together Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Inhofe, who rarely agree.
Inhofe unsuccessfully appealed to Vice President Dick Cheney and White House budget director Jim Nussle to urge the president not to veto the bill, and he vowed to lead the fight to override the veto.
The veto comes as the House next week takes up the first of a string of spending bills that could face Bush vetoes - a $215-billion bill that combines Democratic-sought funding increases for health and education programs with spending for popular veterans programs.
Although the fiscal year began Oct. 1, Congress has yet to send Bush a single spending bill. Bush, signaling a new determination to erase the red ink in the budget, has complained that Congress has added $22 billion to his budget and has become addicted to earmarks.
The water bill authorizes projects, but the money for them still must be provided through the separate appropriations process. Bush complained that some of the projects fall outside the main mission of the Army Corps of Engineers: “facilitating commercial navigation, reducing the risk of damage from floods and storms, and restoring aquatic ecosystems.''
And, in his veto message, he concluded, “American taxpayers should not be asked to support a pork-barrel system of federal authorization and funding where a project's merit is an afterthought.''