TOPICS > Politics

President Bush Vetoes Stem Cell Bill

July 19, 2006 at 8:20 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The last two-term president to go this long without casting a veto was Thomas Jefferson. That was in 1809, and he never vetoed a bill.

For President Bush, it took until today, five-and-a-half years after he took office, for him to use the stroke of a pen to reverse a congressional action.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This legislation would overturn the balanced policy on embryonic stem-cell research that my administration has followed for the past five years. This bill would also undermine the principle that Congress itself has followed for more than a decade when it has prohibited federal funding for research that destroys human embryos.

If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would, for the first time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and I’m not going to allow it.

GWEN IFILL: The legislation, passed by the Senate yesterday and the House last year, would expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. Polls show about 70 percent of Americans support that, and many of the nation’s top scientists believe it could lead to medical breakthroughs.

But since first outlining his policy in 2001, Mr. Bush has maintained that the government should not pay for human embryos to be destroyed in the name of research. At the White House today, the president was joined on stage by families with children born from frozen embryos.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Some people argue that finding new cures for disease requires the destruction of human embryos like the ones that these families adopted. I disagree. I believe that, with the right techniques and the right policies, we can achieve scientific progress while living up to our ethical responsibilities.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s veto pleased social conservatives, like Indiana Republican Mike Pence.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: As a pro-life American, like millions of Americans, I believe that it is morally wrong to destroy nascent human life for the purpose of benefiting other human life. And I commend the president for taking a strong, principled, moral stand on this issue.

GWEN IFILL: But other Republicans joined with Democrats to split from the president. Notable among them, Majority Leader Bill Frist, who led the Senate’s push to defy the president. Frist, a physician who once sided with the president, now says times have changed.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: As science has progressed over the last five years, we have learned that fewer than the anticipated number of cell lines have proved suitable for research, and I feel that the limit on cell lines available for federally funded research is too restrictive.

GWEN IFILL: Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, a sponsor of the bill Frist helped pass, denounced the president’s veto today.

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), Iowa: Who set up, the president of the United States, this president, as our moral pope? The president of the United States is not our moral ayatollah. He may wish to be, but he’s not.

Why president's first veto?

Michael Franc
Heritage Foundation
It's a fundamental moral question: Will taxpayers send their dollars, taxpayers who fundamentally disagree with the morality of doing this kind of research, have their tax dollars used for that research?

GWEN IFILL: The House of Representatives, short of the two-thirds vote need to override a presidential veto, is expected to sustain the president's action.

Now, for more on the president's first legislative veto, we're joined by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She recently completed a study on presidential veto power. And Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

Michael Franc, the president has signed 1,100 bills by now. Why this bill for his first veto?

MICHAEL FRANC, The Heritage Foundation: Well, Gwen, this is the first time that a Republican-controlled Congress on Bush's watch has sent him a bill with a moral foundation with which he fundamentally disagrees. It's a moral issue that doesn't lend itself to legislative negotiation, to compromise, to coming together, giving a little bit here and there.

It's a fundamental moral question: Will taxpayers send their dollars, taxpayers who fundamentally disagree with the morality of doing this kind of research, have their tax dollars used for that research? And he used it as a teaching moment today.

GWEN IFILL: Kathryn Tenpas, how unusual was it for this president to decide to finally veto a bill?

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution: It is extraordinarily unusual. I looked back at other presidents who had governed under similar circumstances, meaning that they had unified government, control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. And what you find is that, on average, from Truman through the president, president's veto on average two times per year.

So Bush should be well over 11 onto 12 right now. And so it was quite striking. I think there are a number of factors that have sort of created what I call the veto-free presidency. Some of them are events like 9/11 and the fact that this was the first time -- 2001 was the first time in roughly 50 years that the Republicans had a unified government. And I think they really felt the need to work together towards similar goals.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bounce off Michael Franc. I wonder whether you agree that having a Congress of your own party makes it less likely for you to veto their work?

MICHAEL FRANC: Well, in a sense it is, because for years I know Speaker Hastert, Denny Hastert of Illinois, has said to many friends and colleagues that he would feel that he was letting down the president if he sent him a bill that was so away from the president's values that he would feel compelled to veto it. So they've always worked behind the scenes.

The president has issued a lot of sort of veto threats that has prompted various negotiations, but those are things, negotiations on bills that lend themselves to compromise, like spending bills perhaps, or highway bills, or farm bills. This is a bill with a very, very important set of moral questions at stake, and it wasn't the kind of thing that they could compromise on.

Is veto a sign of weakness?

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas
Brookings Institution
Some people say that when presidents don't veto they're not exercising the appropriate check that they should have over the legislative branch.

GWEN IFILL: If, as Michael Franc said, if that not vetoing a bill over time is a sign of strength and cooperation, does that make this veto a sign of weakness?

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: Well, some people say that when presidents don't veto they're not exercising the appropriate check that they should have over the legislative branch and that, you know, when the founders established our system, they created three separate branches with the idea that each of them would check one another and have some influence over the other.

So some criticism of President Bush has been that, you know, he's let this Congress run away. That's why we have runaway spending, you know, any number of issues that hardcore Republicans often disagree with. They would object to the fact that he has not vetoed over time.

GWEN IFILL: Is this veto then though just the Congress and the president agreeing to disagree on a vital issue?

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: Yes, I think so. And, in fact, Candida Wolff, who is President Bush's chief liaison for legislative affairs, said once in an interview that, if there was to be a veto in this second term, it would be by mutual agreement. And it's a very interesting phrase, in part because vetoes inherently are contentious. And so this notion of mutual agreement is interesting.

And if you think about stem-cell research and the veto of that particular bill, it makes sense, because Bush's ratings are tumbling. They've got elections right around the corner. President Bush has essentially given some Republicans a little bit of distance so that they can go back to their districts, and run their election campaigns, and hopefully gain some distance from the president and thereby, you know, win election, and he can keep his majorities in the House and Senate.

And it also benefits President Bush because you can sort of appease the most conservative wing of his party, a wing that's unhappy with him for fiscal reasons, because of the status of foreign policy, particularly the Iraq war.

And in a way this mutual agreement makes sense. It's good for Republicans in Congress; it's good for President Bush. But more overall, I think it's probably best for Democrats.

Veto good for Democrats?

Michael Franc
Heritage Foundation
I think that what was going on here is a manifestation of how Republican moderates, especially in the House, have grown increasingly independent of the base of their party.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Franc, is it good for Democrats? And I guess I'll give you a chance to respond to that. But also, do you think that really this is a mutual agreement, that at some point it's worth it to veto a bill and other times it's just not? I think of homeland security and campaign finance reform, two issues the president disagreed with but he didn't veto.

MICHAEL FRANC: Well, again, it's a moral issue, but I wouldn't call it mutual agreement. I think that what was going on here is a manifestation of how Republican moderates, especially in the House, have grown increasingly independent of the base of their party. And a lot of that is driven by their election-year jitters.

They were clear early on in the year, in the House especially, that they would go so far as to sign a discharge petition, which is a procedural tool that effectively takes the gavel out of the hands of the majority, gives it to a coalition made up of some Republicans, some Democrats, on one issue, one bill.

And they would actually be able to take that bill to the floor and get an up-and-down vote on that, so they were emboldened in ways that they have not been emboldened on other issues.

GWEN IFILL: Are veto threats sometimes enough? Just the president 100 times has threatened to veto bills that he never vetoed before today.

MICHAEL FRANC: Well, it certainly helped recently on the supplemental spending bill for the war for Afghanistan, Iraq and for Katrina. The Senate, if you recall, added about $15 billion of pork spending to that. The president sent a very, very clear veto message, stuck to it, was backed up by the House leaders, and almost all of that money was taken out. So that actually -- I would call that a successful veto already.

GWEN IFILL: The president has also started attaching things to bills he signs called "signing statements," in which he allows himself to reverse, interpret or otherwise ignore issues that he feels will compromise national security. Is that kind of a pocket veto?

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: Well, some people -- I'm not a constitutional law expert, but some people would argue that the combination of President Bush's 135 veto threats in addition to the multiple signing statements -- again, there are hundreds of signing statements that have been added onto various bills that have passed -- in effect have served to be vetoes of sorts.

And that, for instance with the torture, McCain torture bill that he signed and then issued signing statements, people say he essentially is not going to enforce something that he signed. So I'm not sure if you'd call it a pocket veto, and I'm not sure how well it would stand up in court, but it certainly is an attempt to circumvent the intended legislation.

A complicated polling issue

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas
Brookings Institution
[Vetoes are] the most formidable check that the president has over the legislative branch. And so they don't happen often historically.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what signing statements are, Michael Franc?

MICHAEL FRANC: Well, I think they're a way to try to assert an independent view by the executive branch in ways that they think will be held up by the courts. It's not quite a veto, but it's definitely in a gray area that I don't think we've seen before.

GWEN IFILL: When the president decides to veto a bill like he did today, is this really in essence an extension of his moral authority or his executive authority?

MICHAEL FRANC: Well, it's a little bit of both, and I think it's also an extension of his teaching authority. I mean, he sees this as an opportunity to focus the American people's attention, in many cases for the first time, on this very complicated issue.

And as you saw this afternoon, he conducted a very elaborate, almost a ceremonial veto ceremony, full of the snowflake children and the folks who have benefited from the other lines of research, to humanize the issue, to show people that there's other alternatives.

The entire event was a way to explain his position and perhaps win over some of those folks who are still undecided. You know, it's a complicated issue polling-wise. A majority wants to go forward with this, probably borne out of a desire to help those who are ill, but they haven't really heard the other side I think as aggressively as they did today.

GWEN IFILL: What about that? Is it executive -- when he signs that, which we didn't actually physically see him sign it today, but when he signs a bill like this, a veto like this, is it executive privilege or is there...

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: I would call it absolutely one of the most formidable executive powers. It's the most formidable check that the president has over the legislative branch. And so they don't happen often historically. And so when they do, they're quite momentous events. And this one is particularly, because it took five-and-a-half years.

GWEN IFILL: Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and Michael Franc, thank you both very much.

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: You're welcome.