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GOP Split on Veto Strategy

Republicans have spent much of this year trying to rebuild their tattered brand as the fiscally conservative party, but that desire to show their frugality ends at the water’s edge.

Republican leaders readily concede that Congress easily will override a threatened veto of the $23 billion Water Resources Development Act, a bill critics complain is bloated with water pork but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have touted as critical to building levees on the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast and numerous other projects across the country.

The authorizing bill passed both chambers overwhelmingly, and even Bush advisers — including new Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle — have acknowledged that they would lose an override vote.

That political reality has some Republicans, even some conservatives, recommending that Bush focus on battles where he thinks he has the votes, like in the coming showdown over appropriations bills.

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who has helped lead a fight to sustain vetoes on spending bills this year, summed up the WRDA dilemma for conservatives. “On a policy basis I clearly think he should veto it,” he said. “But if I were sitting as one of the president’s advisers I would say pick your battles and don’t veto the bill.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said Bush shouldn’t veto the bill because he will get overridden. “I think he’s going to sign WRDA and save his powder for other fights,” Ryan predicted.

But House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said Bush should veto the bill, despite important projects Putnam said he supports in the Florida Everglades.

“I think he will be overridden but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do,” Putnam said. Putnam said the bill “highlights the problem of spending in Washington” because the final bill ended up at $23 billion, much higher than the House bill at $15 billion or the Senate bill at $14 billion.

Earmark foe Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has a straightforward message for Bush: “Just do it.” Flake said the fact that so many Republicans voted for a package packed with earmarks and will vote to override the president doesn’t look good. “It hurts us, it really does.”

But Flake said that he’s hoping a veto would help convince some of his fellow Republicans to start taking a tougher line on trimming pork, not just on disclosure rules. “We just wish he would have discovered that pen a long time ago,” he said. “It would have been easier on SCHIP if he had a record of vetoing bloated spending bills.”

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he’s in Flake’s camp. “This is a running argument I’ve had with the administration,” Pence said. “I see the veto as a routine part of the political process.”

Democrats and many Republicans have touted the bill for including money to build levees in New Orleans and elsewhere. Members call the projects important for health, safety and economic development, although some critics say plenty of wasteful pork is mixed in alongside worthy projects.

Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), one of 147 Republicans who have pledged to uphold presidential vetoes on appropriations bills, said that the president should reconsider.

“It would make life a lot easier for everyone if he would just go ahead and sign it,” LaHood said.

“I think the fact that it passed overwhelmingly should send a strong signal to the White House,” LaHood said. “This should not be a litmus test for branding. It should not be a litmus test for fiscal responsibility. It’s a jobs bill, a bipartisan jobs bill.”

LaHood reiterated that he planned to stick with the president on vetoed appropriations bills, even if Democrats tie the politically popular veterans’ spending bill to the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education measure. “I think we should stand with the president. There is no question that the base of the party doesn’t believe we are fiscally conservative enough.”

Democrats looked on the bright side, regardless of whether Bush vetoes the bill. “If he signs it and at the same time vetoes education, children’s health care, and health research at [National Institutes of Health], that would suggest he cares more about water projects than children’s health care and education,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “On the other hand, if he vetoes it and it’s overridden it would show he’s out of touch again on an issue of importance to the American people.”

A water veto would be particularly damaging given the poor federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Van Hollen indicated. “The message is he didn’t care then, he doesn’t care now,” Van Hollen said.

“I would say this is a perfect example of Republicans’ hypocrisy and lack of credibility on fiscal issues,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Republicans want to spend a lot of money, but not pay for anything. A few vetoes are not going to fool anyone, let alone erase the $4 trillion in debt they have created.”