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President Bush Theatens Veto of Senate’s Emergency Spending Bill

May 3, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Putting a price tag on emergencies. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Big-ticket items make up the bulk of the emergency spending bill now moving through Congress: $67 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; $23 billion for Katrina recovery on the Gulf Coast; and just over $2 billion to prepare for a possible avian flu outbreak.

The $92 billion price tag already has the support of the president, approval by the House, and its nearing approval in the Senate.

A presidential veto throat

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: Time is limited. We must finish this legislation, I hope, within the week, so we can quickly get to a conference agreement with the House and get it to the president for his signature. KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate, however, added to the tab $14 billion for projects they considered emergencies, as well. For instance, $4 billion for farm disasters unrelated to Katrina; close to $1 billion for military research and development. And a plethora of pet projects on top of that: $1.8 million to promote art in West Virginia; $500,000 for the Montana World Trade Center; $150,000 for the Bronx Council of the Arts; and so on. President Bush never has used the power of the veto, but he's threatening to now, if the extra measures are not stripped out before the bill gets to his desk. GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The Congress needs to hear me loud and clear: If they spend more than $92.2, plus pandemic flu emergency funds, I will veto the bill.

Looming electoral concerns

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans already are anxious about this fall's midterm elections and know their base of supporters is angry about rising deficits and runaway spending. A recent Wall Street Journal poll showed government spending was the number-one concern of Americans; 39 percent said members' pet projects should be eliminated altogether. So, as the Senate pressed ahead on the emergency spending bill, the debate centered not on money for Iraq, but on how to trim off the extra spending from other parts of the bill. SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), Idaho: We've got to bring this supplemental down a bit and get our deficits under control. KWAME HOLMAN: Leading the charge has been a cost-cutting maverick from Oklahoma, Republican freshman Tom Coburn. This week and last, Coburn, joined by a small group of fiscal conservatives, battled with colleagues more interested in protecting their projects. SEN. TOM COBURN (R), Oklahoma: And this process works a couple of ways. One is that you tend to look at what's in your own best interests rather than what's in the country's best interest, which is -- it really violates what our oath is. And, number two, it causes you to vote for things that are far different than you would ever, because you're protecting this self-interest, which ultimately comes back to re-elections. KWAME HOLMAN: Coburn spent hours criticizing members from both parties for adding spending and trying to tie it to Hurricane Katrina. SEN. TOM COBURN: Why should we spend $221 million doing it?

A Mississippi fight

KWAME HOLMAN: In a move rarely seen on the Senate floor, Coburn targeted 19 different special project, totaling more than $2.5 billion. The Oklahoman had broken an unwritten rule of the Senate, according to analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: What Tom Coburn has done is to put the spotlight on this dirty, little secret by taking all kinds of things that are not easily defensible under any circumstances but that clearly do not have anything about them that suggests emergency. KWAME HOLMAN: Coburn had initial success last week when he garnered enough support to kill a $15 million seafood marketing campaign for the Gulf Coast. Lending a hand was fellow budget hawk John McCain of Arizona. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Let me save the American taxpayers $15 million right now by telling all Americans now to eat seafood. Eat seafood. It's good for you. There we go. C-SPAN has millions of viewers that have heard the message, so the marketing campaign is complete. KWAME HOLMAN: The small gang of fiscal conservatives celebrated its victory and predicted the Senate would uphold the presidential veto should it come to that. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: For those Republicans who have been dying for us up here to say no to spending, your ship may have come in. KWAME HOLMAN: But the tide turned against these cost-cutters, and Coburn specifically, as some of the Senate's most senior members stood their ground. First, Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran and former Majority Leader Trent Lott, both from hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, fended off an effort by Coburn to strip $700 million to relocate a railroad along the Gulf Coast. Coburn lost by a single vote. SEN. TOM COBURN: Losing the vote by one vote tells you the power of the appropriators and this imbalance we have with one group, one small group in the Senate and in the House that has massive control over everything else that operates here. And it was never intended that way. KWAME HOLMAN: Still, analyst Ornstein said the narrow margin was significant. NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's amazing, frankly, that you could get within one vote of knocking out a major project in which the two powerful senators from Mississippi have put everything they had into it and their reputations on the line. KWAME HOLMAN: But Coburn wasn't finished. He questioned the Mississippi senators about $500 million they designated for the Northrop Grumman shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula which suffered financial losses during Katrina. Lott, who lost his home during the hurricane, responded with a personal appeal. SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), Mississippi: My dad was a pipe-fitter in that shipyard and was in the pipe department when he was killed in an automobile accident. So I don't just see statistics and numbers; I see neighbors, classmates, men and women that believe in what they do and build a quality product, and they've been hit a grievous blow. KWAME HOLMAN: Mississippi again prevailed as Coburn's effort failed by another close vote. But he pressed on, as frustrated colleagues struggled to appease him, even while saving their projects. SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R-MS), Chair, Appropriations Committee: If the senator wants to change it to $166 million or $120 million, I don't know what the right number is. KWAME HOLMAN: As his mission wore on, Coburn realized he had made his points, and so he withdrew most of his cost-cutting amendments. SEN. TOM COBURN: I would ask for unanimous consent for it to be withdrawn.

A vow to continue on

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And right now, Tom Coburn is doing things that will make a lot of his colleagues angry, but he's also sensed the zeitgeist in the country which is anti-Congress and anti-pork of this sort, and so he's able to seize on it. Now, does this mean that his colleagues won't like him? Some of them are going to be furious with him for a very long time. Does it mean that Oklahoma may get hurt? Sure, it's entirely possible. KWAME HOLMAN: Coburn was not worried. SEN. TOM COBURN: I'm not going to stop. We're going to have votes on every egregious earmark in every appropriation bill, because the American people deserve to hear it defended on the floor. And we'll see who wins the ultimate debate. KWAME HOLMAN: And Tom Coburn knows that, even if he does lose most of his fights during this round, he could be on the winning side if the president follows through with his veto threat.