Thirty-five Senate Republicans signed a letter yesterday assuring President Bush they will back his veto of the emergency-spending bill for war efforts and hurricane relief if the final version exceeds his requested budget level.
"The Senate's willingness to support a veto reflects that we're not kidding about fiscal restraint and responsibility," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.
The signatures indicate there are more than enough votes to prevent the Senate from securing the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto.
Mr. Bush threatened this week to veto the emergency-spending bill if it goes beyond his requested level of $92.2 billion, plus an extra $2.3 billion the Senate added for pandemic flu preparation. Many conservatives had privately urged Mr. Bush to step up and make the threat, since the Senate version currently stands at $106.5 billion and contains many extra, unrelated spending items they want out.
But the first few tests of senators' willingness to cut the bill didn't go well. Senators voted 49-48 to kill a proposal that would have stripped a highly contentious $700 million plan to reroute a railroad in Mississippi -- dubbed by critics as "the railroad to nowhere."
And 72 senators voted to kill an amendment that would have immediately stripped the Senate bill down to Mr. Bush's level. Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, offered this proposal, which 26 Republicans supported.
When asked about the seeming inconsistency between the Republicans' letter and the refusal by some to cut the bill, a Senate Republican aide noted that the letter refers to the final House-Senate version of the bill.
Mr. Thomas said most members "want to reduce the total" cost, but are still discussing what to cut, so he wasn't surprised his proposal failed.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, offered the railroad-stripping proposal as one of 19 separate proposals to cut items from the bill.
"Mississippi will win if this happens, but the future of our country loses," he said of the railroad plan. "It's not an emergency."
Mississippi's two Republican senators vigorously defended the plan and lobbied fellow members to keep it in the bill. They argued the rail must be moved north, out of the path of future hurricanes. Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, was the deciding vote that allowed the measure to remain.
Mr. Coburn's time-consuming crusade didn't sit well with everyone. Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, was overheard sarcastically complaining to an aide "That's just what I want to do -- vote on his 19 amendments."
As Republicans struggled over what and whether to cut, Democrats accused Mr. Bush of hypocrisy yesterday for his veto threat, saying he and Republicans have plunged the nation into debt over the past five years.
"We had a surplus five years ago," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said yesterday, referring to the end of her husband's tenure. "But the combination of this White House and this Republican majority has blown all of that to smithereens. This president has never vetoed anything, and now we finally get a veto threat on an emergency supplemental."
Mrs. Clinton, widely seen as a 2008 presidential hopeful, compared Republicans' call for spending restraint to a boy killing his parents and then asking the judge for leniency because he's an orphan.
But Republicans dismissed the hypocrisy charge as politics. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, said Democrats "proposed a whole lot more spending than we did" over the past few years.