By Dana Milbank
The levies couldn't hold.
Ten minutes after noon yesterday, the floodgates burst on the Senate floor, and the dams crumbled. Billions of dollars for public-works projects poured forth. For the first time in the Bush presidency, Congress had overridden a veto.
The legislature has proved impotent in its efforts to challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the waterboarding of prisoners. But the president learned an important lesson yesterday: Don't mess with lawmakers' pet projects.
Bush vetoed a $23 billion bill for water projects after the White House determined that it was "unacceptable" to the nation's finances. Yesterday, the Senate, following the House, told Bush just what was acceptable, voting 79 to 14 to override the veto. If anything, the opposition to Bush was even greater than the margin suggests; not a single senator came to the floor during yesterday's debate to defend Bush's veto.
"The president of the United States made a mistake," proclaimed Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a usual Bush ally.
"The veto on this bill was ill-advised," agreed Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, argued that Bush "is trying to hold the line on spending -- congratulations." But as for Lott's vote? "I believe that this bill is in the best interest of the country."
Democrats dared to hope that the president, once overridden, would become permanently weakened in his battles with Congress. "For the seven years this man has been president, he ignored us," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said as he sat with colleagues in his office after the vote. "I would hope this is a message that the president can't just take his Republican colleagues for granted."
That may be wishful thinking. The veto override -- Democrats said it was only the 107th in the history of the Republic -- was less about balance of power than balance of pork. One after the other, senators took to the floor to note the bill's importance to their parochial concerns.
"In this bill is money for the planning district of Georgia," offered Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
"In this bill, there are nearly $2 billion for . . . Florida's Everglades," agreed Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla).
Lott spoke of "proper salinity in the Gulf of Mexico." Domenici had visions of "a park along the Rio Grande." And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spoke of wine country. "In Napa," she said, "there's a flood-control program there that's essential."
Some of the items in the bill stretched the "essential" label. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) took issue with a new visitor center in the bill for Morgan City, La. (the town already has two), and $8.5 million for "beach nourishment" at the Southern California site of the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition. But even the famously outspoken Coburn didn't risk a speech on the floor opposing the bill.
Proponents took the novel approach of arguing that the bill, which directs $23 billion toward 751 projects, wouldn't cost anything.
"It doesn't spend a penny," vouched Boxer, the bill's author.
"It doesn't spend a cent," seconded Inhofe.
"This bill does not spend a dime," added Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Technically true. The bill "authorizes" the spending but doesn't actually release the money. Still, it's prerequisite for spending the $23 billion -- or, in Conrad's terms, 230 billion dimes.
Predictably, the "doesn't spend a penny" claims vanished immediately after passage. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) went with Boxer to the Senate TV gallery and exulted: "At about 10 minutes after 12 Eastern time, green lights went on all over south Louisiana. . . . We started to turn dirt, restore wetlands and build levies."
"Yes," Boxer agreed, "these projects will be funded."
But that $23 billion detail was not the important point. "The important point," Boxer said, "is that we have said today as a Congress to this president, 'You can't just keep rolling over us like this. You can't make everything a fight, because we'll see it through.' " Indeed, Bush's veto may have failed, but he succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of uniting the Senate in bipartisan togetherness.
As opponents of the measure quietly registered their "no" votes, supporters crossed the aisle as if mixing at a cocktail party. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip, smiled with John Warner (R-Va.). Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) hobnobbed with Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) grinned with Jim Webb (D-Va.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) bonded with Kit Bond (R-Mo.), and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) backslapped Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
But no coupling was odder than that of Inhofe and Boxer: He an arch-conservative, she an arch-liberal, both fierce partisan warriors, united for the moment in their common love of water projects.
"She is a proud liberal, I'm a proud conservative, and we both proudly support this bill," Inhofe declared on the floor.
"Senator Inhofe and I don't exactly see eye to eye on everything," Boxer reciprocated, "but on this, we were very much a team."