WASHINGTON (AP) - President George W. Bush suffered the first veto override of his seven-year-old presidency as the Senate enacted a $23 billion water resources bill despite his protest that it was filled with unnecessary projects.
The 79-14 vote Thursday included 34 Republicans who defied the president. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was one of them.
Inhofe split with fellow Republican legislator, Tom Coburn. Coburn and 13 other U.S. senators voted against the veto, despite the benefits of the bill for Oklahoma's residents living within the nation's number one Superfund site.
Enactment was a foregone conclusion, but it still marked a milestone for a president who spent his first six years with a much friendlier Congress controlled by the Republican Party.
Now, he confronts a more hostile, Democratic-controlled legislature, and Thursday's vote showed that most of the Republicans will defy him on spending matters dear to their political careers.
Bush's spokeswoman portrayed the issue as a divide between a budget-conscious president and a big-spending Congress.
“The president is standing up for the taxpayers,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “No one is surprised that this veto is overridden. We understand that members of Congress are going to support the projects in their districts.”
The bill authorizes funding for hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers projects, such as dams, sewage plants and beach restoration, that are important to their representatives.
“The WRDA bill is not a spending bill, it is an authorizing bill,” Inhofe said. “It simply sets out which projects and programs are allowed to get in line for future funding and sets the maximum amount of money that can be funded.”
If Bush prevailed with a veto, residents in Tar Creek would have been dealt “a major setback,” said Miles Tolbert, the state's secretary of the environment.
”It would have created a situation where half the people in the town were moved and half were not,” Tolbert said Thursday. ”This is a big step in keeping that from happening.”
Tar Creek, a 40-square-mile area that also takes in portions of Missouri and Kansas, was one of the world's most productive regions for lead and zinc. Today, it's one of the oldest and largest Superfund cleanup sites in the country.
The water bill authorizes the funds to finish relocation assistance for residents of Picher, Cardin and Hockerville.
It also provides the authority required by the Environmental Protection Agency to re-evaluate remediation plans at Tar Creek.
The House voted 361-54 to override the veto Tuesday. Both votes easily exceeded the two-thirds majority needed in each chamber to negate a presidential veto.
The last such veto override happened when Congress dealt President Bill Clinton the second of his two overrides in February 1998.
Bush vetoed no bills during his first five years in office. He has since vetoed a stem cell research bill twice, an Iraq spending bill that set guidelines for troop withdrawals, and a children's health insurance bill. House and Senate Republicans managed to sustain those vetoes.
But they broke ranks on the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, which Bush vetoed on Nov. 2, calling it too expensive. Thirty-four Republicans voted with the 43 Democrats and two independents to override the veto.
The bill, the first water system restoration and flood control authorization passed by Congress since 2000, would cost $11.2 billion over the next four years, and $12 billion in the 10 years after that, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Flood protection projects along the Gulf Coast, including 100-year levee protection in New Orleans, would cost about $7 billion if fully funded. The bill approves projects but does not fund them.
Democrats, frustrated by their inability to force Bush's hand on Iraq and other matters, clearly enjoyed their victory Thursday. Sen. Barbara Boxer said the message to the White House was, ”you can't keep rolling over us like this.”