WASHINGTON -- For the fifth time this year, President Bush rejected a major piece of legislation yesterday, vetoing a $606 billion health and education spending measure.
The decision illustrates his growing use of a powerful tool that, until recently, received little attention from Bush. During his first six years in office, he issued just one veto - of a stem cell research measure.
His latest actions share a common theme: Bush is trying to assert his influence over spending by the Democratic-led Congress.
To some, his calls for fiscal discipline ring hollow. Even Republicans have been critical of federal spending under Bush, accusing him of abandoning conservative fiscal principles as projected surpluses became deficits.
Among the factors: a costly war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the launch of expensive new programs, such as the Medicare prescription drug plan. Just yesterday, the government announced that the new budget year began with a $55.6 billion deficit, up 12.6 percent from last year, even though tax revenues hit an all-time high.
In issuing his latest veto, Bush said the labor, health and human services appropriations measure "spends too much" and "continues to fund programs that are duplicative or ineffective."
"We've worked to restrain spending," he told an audience of business leaders in Indiana. Democrats in Congress, he said, are "acting like a teenager with a new credit card."
Last week, however, 172 Republican senators and congressmen joined Democrats in overriding Bush's veto of a $23.2 billion water projects plan - the first override of his presidency.
Analysts say Bush's arguments are undercut by spending he approved earlier in his presidency.
Bush's fiscal record is "as bad as it can get," said Allen Schick, a former Congressional Research Service budget specialist who teaches public policy at the University of Maryland, citing war costs and a bloated farm bill that Bush approved in 2003.
"Republicans were the ones who said George W. Bush never met a spending bill he didn't like," Schick said. "Let's put it this way: If someone gets religion late in life, you wonder if they are really religious or worried about the grim reaper."
Bush's recent decisions, however, show that his veto threats are far from empty, as the battle over the federal budget and spending gains momentum.
The conflict features many elements of what the public says it dislikes about Washington: Politicians who spend more time squabbling than getting things done, while avoiding big problems facing the country.
In the spending fight, the president and Congress are at odds over about $22 billion, less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
The political context is richer: Until the 2006 election changed the equation, Bush, working with a Republican-led Congress, had little trouble getting his priorities adopted. And until last week's override, he made his vetoes stick.
Congress is unlikely to override the latest veto, because the majorities approving the measure did not reach the two-thirds needed in both chambers to restore the legislation.
Bush said he was disturbed by 2,200 "earmarks" in the measure, totaling about $1 billion, that lawmakers inserted to fund pet projects. Included were $1.9 million for mammography equipment at St. Agnes, Mercy and Northwest hospitals in Baltimore and $250,000 for an MRI machine at Kennedy Krieger Institute - spending sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which helped write the measure.
Democrats in Congress contrasted Bush's rejection of the measure - which contains about $10 billion more in spending than he proposed - with his recent request for war funding.
"He's saying there's too much being spent on American students, on American children for health care, on communities for their investment in infrastructure, but we'll send $200 billion extra this year to Baghdad and Kabul," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Citing figures in a new congressional report that put the cost of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan at $1.6 trillion through next year, Hoyer said the study "exposes the president's newfound rhetoric about fiscal responsibility for precisely what it is: political posturing, pure and simple."
Bush has threatened to veto eight of the nine spending measures before Congress.