WASHINGTON -- President Clinton exercised the first veto of his presidency yesterday, rejecting a Republican-sponsored bill that would have sliced $16.4 billion from current federal spending -- much of it for education, job training and housing programs.
The president, speaking in the Rose Garden, sent to Capitol Hill his own version of the bill, one that leaves poverty and education programs largely intact and targets various construction projects.
"I worked in good faith with members of the Congress to craft a . . . bill that would cut spending by a set amount -- and do it in the right way," Mr. Clinton said of the measure, called a "rescission bill."
The bill would have reduced the federal deficit by $9 billion because it also added $7.3 billion in emergency spending, largely for disaster relief.
"Instead . . . they took out a lot of education investment -- they took out half the drug-free school money -- and substituted courthouses, highways and city streets in selected states and congressional districts," Mr. Clinton added. "In other words, they decided to cut school safety to increase 'pork.' "
Republican congressional leaders denounced Mr. Clinton for the veto, saying that in portraying himself as the sole champion of drug education and other such programs, he was playing election-type politics with the budget. But they conceded that they lacked the votes to override the veto.
"I think this is an inexcusable veto, entirely political in its posture," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who is considering running for president next year. "This entire charade was brought about by the president's political campaign consultants."
Both Mr. Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the front-runner among the Republican presidential candidates, also noted that the rescission bill includes some emergency money for Oklahoma City, California disaster relief and debt relief for Jordan to support the Mideast peace process.
"The president has made a serious mistake in judgment in vetoing this measure," Mr. Dole said. "We met the administration more than halfway."
The Rose Garden veto ceremony did have an orchestrated campaign-trail feel to it, one reminiscent of the summer of 1992, when Mr. Clinton emerged from third place in the polls into the lead he never relinquished. As the president spoke in sweltering heat, the backdrop was an appreciative audience of schoolchildren, teachers and people like John Torres, a Texas police officer who received an award for his success as a D.A.R.E. anti-drug officer in the Fritch Elementary School in Fritch, Texas.
Jaime Chambron, a graduating high school senior from Largo, Fla., thanked the president for his support for anti-drug school programs and urged him to "keep fighting" for them. "We feel safer in our classrooms and our hallways than we did a year ago," she told the president.
Regardless of whether the ceremony was overtly political, it seemed to please White House aides that the president, after floundering for months with a Republican-led Congress, has now found his stride -- and his voice.
A week ago, he hammered at Republicans on the environment, ridiculing their reauthorization of the Clean Water Act as the Dirty Water Act. Yesterday, he flayed them for putting buildings and concrete ahead of children.
"I cannot in good conscience sign a bill that cuts education to save pet congressional projects. That is old politics; it is wrong," Mr. Clinton said. "So what I want to do," he added, "is to say to the Congress, 'Look, just put the education back in, take the pork out.' "
Mr. Clinton also needled Republican leaders because Congress
has recently balked at giving him the power to veto individual budget expenditures -- a power they have insisted for 15 years was necessary for a president.
Line-item veto revisited
"The House passed it on President Reagan's birthday; they talked about what an urgent thing it was," Mr. Clinton said. "Now they say they don't think they ought to give it to me this year because I might use it."
In the process of tweaking the Republicans, Mr. Clinton offered a second gambit: He pledged that if Congress would give him the line-item veto power, he would use it only on spending provisions, not on Republican-passed tax cuts that he has criticized as disproportionately beneficial to the rich.
But the president quickly said that if Republicans make deep cuts in education and Medicare to pay for their tax cuts, "I'll veto the whole thing."
Republicans responded that the president's action shows he is not serious about reducing deficit spending.
"The objections he raised rang hollow," said Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman. "The focus of his opposition is $1.4 billion of the $16.4 billion total in spending cuts. That's less than 0.1 percent of the entire budget. He says Congress didn't cut enough out of courthouse funding, which he calls 'pork.' Let's remember that this is 'pork' he signed into law in the first place."
The president insisted: "I believe in cutting the deficit, but we cannot do it overnight, and we must recognize that the only deficit in this country is not the budget deficit. There's a deficit in this country in the number of drug-free children. There's a deficit in this country in the number of safe schools. There's an education deficit in this country. And we dare not ignore those problems."
The president also displayed a distaste for the veto process that aides said was genuine.
One more than Fillmore
Mr. Clinton now has one more veto than Millard Fillmore, who had none, and 634 fewer than Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ronald Reagan used the veto 78 times in eight years. For most of that time he had a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. George Bush, who faced a hostile Democratic majority in both houses, used the veto 46 times in his one term.
Only one was overridden. Jimmy Carter, despite having a Democratic Congress, used the veto 31 times in his four years.
Instead of embarking on a so-called "veto strategy," the aides said the president was hoping that Congress would see he is serious about certain programs -- notably education -- and would take his bottom line into account while drawing up the various budget measures due to hit his desk this summer.