WASHINGTON -- An embattled President Bush watched his perfect veto record shatter yesterday as a consumer-conscious Congress overrode his objections to a bill that would limit rate increases for cable television.
The key showdown came when the Senate voted 74-25 to override Mr. Bush's 36th veto. The House quickly followed suit, with Democrats cheering a 308-114 vote that was well beyond the two-thirds majority required.
The Senate vote surprised consumer advocates, who expected that intense White House lobbying would produce a much closer result. Mr. Bush personally appealed to the bill's Republican supporters to switch. None did.
It would have taken a change of nine votes to preserve Mr. Bush's record. But Republicans were listening to their constituents, not their president. When White House lobbyists fell short of the mark, a handful of senators who had agreed to switch stayed put.
"There was no point for those who wanted to support the president to switch when he wasn't going to win anyway," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.
The bill would limit rates for basic cable service, require cable operators to observe customer-service standards and make it easier for cable competitors to get a foothold in the marketplace.
"This Congress can deliver for the people of this country," said Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, D-La. "We can't give them a tax break. We can give them a cable rate break."
In the context of the life-and-death issues that confront a president, a bill to re-regulate a segment of the entertainment industry doesn't amount to much.
But in terms of image, Mr. Bush took an obvious pride in his ability to stop the "gridlock Democratic Congress" with a stroke of his pen.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas angrily accused Democrats of politicizing the vote, quoting statements by vice-presidential candidate Al Gore, a Tennessee senator, that Mr. Bush had sold out to the cable industry.
"This is politics," said Mr. Dole, facing his Republican colleagues. "This is an effort to embarrass the president. The merits of this legislation have been forgotten."
Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., a key ally of Mr. Bush in other battles, stood in rebuttal. "The fact that a president's veto is overridden is not a slap in the face to a president," said Mr. Danforth. "It is merely a disagreement on an issue."
All of Maryland's senators and representatives in Congress voted to override the veto.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater tried to take the defeat in stride.
"We stood for lower cable bills for the consumer through increased competition," he said. "This is an important principle. We genuinely believe that our approach would be a better way to increase the variety of services available to the consumer at lower prices."
Some 60 percent of U.S. households have cable television, but in almost all communities, customers must deal with a monopoly. In the five years since cable deregulation took effect, rates have risen three times faster than inflation. Complaints about poor service have grown louder.
Consumer groups pushing the bill say it could lead to rate cuts of up to 30 percent. Mr. Bush and the cable industry argued that it would drive prices higher.
Neutral observers say consumers should not expect a big bonanza. But they say that rates will probably stop increasing so fast for most consumers and that some customers may actually get a cut.
In the past, Mr. Bush has compromised on issues such as civil rights, minimum wage and unemployment benefits to avoid political damage from sticking to his veto. This time he dug in.
Congressional Republicans who backed the bill suddenly faced the choice of siding with their constituents or with a president struggling to keep his re-election hopes alive.
"The cable bill is a consumer issue that's important to middle-class and upper-middle-class constituents," said Steven Smith, who teaches political science at the University of Minnesota. "Congressional Republicans will be able to go home and say, 'Look, I'm not in lock step with George Bush.' "
The bill's main provisions would:
* Require the Federal Communications Commission to set rates for basic cable service in areas where there is no effective cable competition. Equipment rental and installation fees would also be regulated. Viewers could get a refund if cable companies overcharge for higher levels of service.
* Impose customer service standards for cable operators to follow.
* Promote alternatives to cable by requiring creators of cable programs to sell to cable competitors at reasonable prices.
The cable industry -- and Mr. Bush -- have argued that costs to consumers could go up because of a provision mandating service standards and a requirement that cable companies negotiate with broadcasting stations before carrying their signals.
They say cable has grown into a popular provider of high-quality programming that would improve and expand faster if unregulated.
Gary Frink, president of Television Viewers of American, a lobbyist for the bill, said the White House had been framing the vote as crucial to Mr. Bush's re-election.
"They're saying, 'If you really want to have a Republican administration, give us this vote and we'll give you one,' " he said.
Mr. Fitzwater said before the vote that Mr. Bush had been telephoning lawmakers and "we obviously hope we switched some." Mr. Bush had breakfast Sunday with eight senators he had hoped to sway.
In his veto message, Mr. Bush said the bill would create costs for the cable industry that would be passed on to consumers.
"In addition, this legislation will cost American jobs and discourage investment in telecommunications," he said.
The Senate approved the bill last month 74-25 -- the same tally as yesterday's. The House approved the bill 280-128 on Sept. 17.