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You Can't Win 'Em All:

Surprise! Congress Overrides A Reagan Veto

By James Kelly Time cover

(TIME, September 20, 1982) -- When the ayes and the nays were totted up, it appeared at first to be a devastating defeat for Ronald Reagan. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to override the President's veto last month of a $ 14.2 billion supplemental spending bill. It marked the first time that Congress had overturned a Reagan veto of an economic measure, * and it did so in impressive numbers: the vote in the House was 301 to 117 -- 22 more than the two-thirds needed for an override; in the Republican-controlled Senate the tally was 60 to 30, exactly the required margin. But if the rebuke was supposed to sting, the White House appeared surprisingly unruffled. "We're going to have a lot more chances, 'cause I'm going to do a lot more vetoing." said a feisty Reagan as he campaigned for Republican candidates in Utah last Friday. " Any time there is an attempt to bust the budget, I will veto."

*Last July the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to override a presidential veto of copyright legislation that extended a law protecting the American printing industry from foreign competion.

In fact, the battle was one that the White House knew it might lose, and could afford to do so.As a supplementary appropriations measure, the bill allotted additional money to a host of already approved programs, which were now in danger of running out of funds before fiscal year 1982 ends on Sep. 30. As approved by Congress last August, the bill gave Reagan much of what he had asked for, including $ 5 billion for military pay hikes and $ 350 million for his aid package on the Carribbean basin.

But the Hill also had cut out nearly $ 2 billion for defense from Reagan's request, while adding some $900 million for social welfare, including $ 211 million for a jobs program for the elderly, $ 217 million for student grants and $ 175 million for educational aid for disaadvantage children and the handicapped. During his August vacation at the ranch in California, Reagan received a memo from White House aides recommending the turn down the appropriations bill. The study also warned that it was unlikely his veto could be sustained, at least in the House. Despite similar forecasts from G.O.P. leaders on Capitol Hill, Reagan decided to reject the measure. "This bill would bust the budget by nearly a billion dollars," contended the President in a toughly worded message to Congress, alget buster," as Reagan had charged; indeed, the $ 14.2 billion measure actually costs $ 2 billion less than the original Reagan proposal. Contened House Democratic Floor Leader Jim Wright of Texas: "The claim that the bill is over budget is as phony as a three-dollar bill."

Equally damaging to the President's cause were loud howls from those whose programs were at stake, especially the elderly. Lobbyists from senior-citizen groups claimed that nearly 55,000 older Americans who are now being paid to perform community-service jobs, such as driving buses and delivering Meals-on-Wheels, would be thrown out of work. Many Republicans were irked that the White House had not forewarned them in August that Reagan might veto the bill; they approved the legislation then, and now resented being asked to switch their votes on a measure with popular appeal.

On Thursday, when the House was scheduled to vote, Regan called Minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois and promised to support the $ 211 million jobs program for the elderly in a future bill. Administration lobbyists also passed the word that the President would not fight for his extra $ 2 billion in defense funds in a subsequent measure. With those pledges, however, Reagan undercut his argument for vetoing the measure in the first place. "Why this charade?" asked Democrat Leon Panetta of California. "Why go through this process?"

Then, just before the vote, Speaker Tip O' Neill attacked Reagan's original rejection of the bill as "a dastardly political move by a man with a stone heart." Added O'Neill, with familiar hyperbole: "By vetoing this measure, the President wants us to make a choice between weapons and handicapped children." The Speaker had sensed the mood of the House: 81 Republicans abandoned Reagan to join 220 Democrats in overriding the veto; only 13 Democrats joined 104 Republicans to sustain it.

So it was on to the Senate, where Republican Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee was caught off guard. he had expected the House to sustain the veto, thus making a Senate vote unnecessary. After the House action, a shocked Baker made a hasty head count. He discovered that the Republicans did not even have 20 votes to block a veto overide in the Senate.

Senators balked at supporting the President's veto for the same reasons cited by House members. In addition, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and other Republicans were furious with Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, who had advised Reagan to veto the measure in the first place; they felt that Stockman had overstated to the President the costs of several items in the bill, including the jobs program for the elderly.

Baker nevertheless began lining up his troops. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was on the campaign trail with Reagan at the time, and Paul Laxalt of Nevada were hurriedly flown back to Washington on an Air Force jet. Interior Secretary James Watt was dispatched to Oregon to handle a speaking engagement for Malcolm Wallop so that the Wyoming Senator could return to the capital. Reagan called nearly 20 Senators.

Baker almost pulled it off. In the last moments of the balloting on Friday, the majority leader discovered that he was just one vote shy of sustaining the veto. He tried to engineer a procedural tactic with John Tower -- who, much to the anger of Senate leaders, had unexpectedly flown back to his home state of Texas -- that would use his vote to block the override, but the ploy failed. Twenty-one Republicans sided with 39 Democrats against the President, while only three Democrats and Independent Harry Byrd of Virginia joined 26 Republicans to support him.

Unhappy with the Senate vote, White House advisers nonetheless tried to make a virtue of the defeat. If Reagan had only lost in the Democratic-controlled House, these aides argued, the vote could easily have been turned to the advantage of the President, and his party, in this fall's campaign. Reagan could have been portrayed as the tightfisted Chief Executive doing battle with a spendthrift Congress. Even though the action in the Republican Senate seems to undermine that strategy, Reagan's adviser insist that their boss intends to stick with that theme on the campaign trail. "Instead of the President vs. theDemocrats in Congress, it is now the President vs. those in Congress who favor bigspending." says one aide. "It's still a no lose situation for us."

Meanwhile Reagan fulilled a pledge from his 1980 presidential campaign and announced his support for a Senate bill of dubious constitutionality. Sponsored by Conservative Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the controversial proposal would permanently deny all federal financing for abortions and require the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 decision legalizing the procedure. Senate liberals have been staging a filibuster against the measure since August; Reagan last week wrote to nine Republicans and telephoned six more urging them to join Helms in voting to cut off the filibuster. "It is time to stand up and be counted on this issue," declared the President.

Helms' attempt at cloture fell 19 votes short of the required two-thirds majority, but he will try again this week to end the talkathon. The Senator has vowed to fight a similar filibuster against another proposal, which would attempt to get around Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools by asserting that the subject is beyond the province of the federal courts and is a matter for the states to arbitrate. Reagan has promised to sign that bill as well. Aware that both proposals will make bad law, some White House aides privately hope that neither piece of legislation will ever get as far as the President's desk. So do most authorities on the U.S. Constituion. They are concerned that the Helms approach threatens the constitutional separation of powers in its encroachment on the authority of the Supreme Court and would also circumvent the time-tested process of amending the Constitution -- particularly cynical violations of tradition by a self-styled conservative.

Reported by Douglas Brew and Neil MacNeil/Washington

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