WASHINGTON -- Two weeks ago the Senate voted 89-11 in favor of a Highway Robbery Bill worth $295 billion -- $11 billion more than what the House passed back in March. Now the only question is to what extent the Senate and House will split the difference.
President Bush has threatened to veto any Highway Robbery Bill that exceeds the House amount of $284 billion. That's up from $254 billion, the spending limit for the Highway Robbery Bill that Bush insisted on last year. Unfortunately, that's not the only reason to think that Bush's veto threat is an empty one.
There is every reason Bush should veto this monument to bloat. The House version of the bill achieved the distinction of giving "pork" a bad name by including over 15 line items for museum construction and over 25 for pedestrian walkways. The Senate bill has somehow managed to remove those items while boosting the cost of the overall bill. Any guess on where the House-Senate conference committee will compromise?
Sadly, Bush has little political capital left in reserve now, as most of it is earmarked for other initiatives. He has expended a good deal getting his judges through the Senate. The recent truce on this battle is likely temporary. A scenario in which Bush will have to appoint both a new judge to the Supreme Court and a Chief Justice is quickly going from probability to certainty as William Rehnquist's illness lingers. This gives Bush little room to anger GOP Senate moderates with a veto of the Highway Robbery Bill.
As soon as Bush got some of his long-suffering judges through the Senate, the obnoxious wing of the Democratic Senate stalled his nomination for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. The longer that battle continues, the more Bush will need good relations with the Senate GOP.
Then there is Social Security reform. Chances are slim that Bush will get legislation through the Senate, but he can -- and needs to -- get it through the House. If he can't secure a bill in the House, his venture into Social Security reform will be dismissed as a total disaster. It will make it much harder for Bush to use it as an issue in the 2006 campaign.
Also sapping Bush's political capital is his impending veto of stem cell legislation. The House recently passed legislation permitting research labs that receive federal funds to experiment on frozen embryos; the Senate is expected to follow suit. A Bush veto will undoubtedly upset the moderate Republicans in the House and Senate, whom Bush will have to rely on to advance Social Security reform, his judges, and Bolton.
Thus, Bush simply can't afford to veto the Highway Robbery Bill. By signing it into law, he will improve the chances of achieving those other goals.
ALTHOUGH CONGRESS HAS BEEN nothing short of irresponsible in its handling of the Highway Robbery Bill, one can hardly blame them for passing this pork fest. President Bush has failed to lead on spending. A president has to set the tone for spending early in his administration. He has to talk up spending restraint in his first few months and veto at least one of the appropriations bills that land on his desk in the first year.
But Bush did none of this. Instead, he all but ensured that spending would rise by letting Ted Kennedy write his education bill. He followed this up with a farm bill that boosted subsidies, and a Medicare prescription drug bill that small-government conservatives will be smarting over for some time to come. In short, the message Bush sent his first term was: "Be a Drunken Sailor."
The Bush Administration has tried to reverse some of the damage with this year's budget. It called for cuts in or elimination of 150 federal programs. It targeted some major long-term money wasters like the Community Development Block Grants. But it is too late. Having shown no seriousness on spending in his first term, Bush can't get Congress to take him seriously now. In April the Senate voted 68-31 to restore the funds Bush proposed cutting in the Community Development Block Grants.
It is little surprise that Congress has brought the same frivolity to the Highway Robbery Bill. And Bush's need to prevail on so many other political fights all but guarantees that he'll sign it.
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