What sort of legacy is this?
President Bush cast a quiet veto Wednesday against a politically attractive expansion of children's health insurance, triggering a struggle with the Democratic-controlled Congress certain to reverberate into the 2008 elections.
"Congress will fight hard to override President Bush's heartless veto," vowed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Bush vetoed the bill in private, absent the television cameras and other media coverage that normally attend even routine presidential actions. The measure called for adding an estimated 4 million mostly lower-income children to a program that currently covers 6.6 million. Funds for the expansion would come from higher tobacco taxes, including a 61-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes.
"Poor kids first," Bush said later in explaining his decision, reflecting a concern that some of the bill's benefits would go to families at higher incomes. "Secondly, I believe in private medicine, not the federal government running the health care system," he added in remarks to an audience in Lancaster, Pa.
The president said he is willing to compromise with Congress "if they need a little more money in the bill to help us meet the objective of getting help for poor children."
It was the fourth veto of Bush's presidency, at a time his popularity is low, the legislation popular enough to draw support from dozens of GOP lawmakers, and an override certain to seal his lame-duck status.
Democratic leaders scheduled the showdown for Oct. 18 to allow two weeks for pressure to build on Republicans. A union-led organization said it would spend more than $3 million trying to influence the outcome. "It's going to be a hard vote for Republicans," promised Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Criticism of the veto was instantaneous, from every quarter of the Democratic political firmament.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a presidential hopeful, called it unconscionable, party chairman Howard Dean labeled it appalling, and Pelosi said, "It's very sad that the president has chosen to veto a bill that would provide health care for ten million American children for the next five years."
Republicans said none of the criticism would matter. "I'm confident that the more time we have to explain the veto, the more people will be with their position,' said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, second-ranking GOP leader in the House.
Longer term, Republicans said their goal was to sustain the veto and force Democrats into negotiations on a compromise that GOP lawmakers could embrace.
"Democrats now face an important choice: Either work with Republicans to renew this program or continue to play politics on the backs of our nation's children," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader.
He and other Republicans said Democratic plans to delay an override vote revealed an eagerness to score political points.
The Democratic legislation would add $35 billion to the program over five years to expand coverage. Bush argued the bill was too costly, took the program too far beyond its original intent of helping the poor and would entice people with private insurance to switch to government coverage. He has proposed a $5 billion increase in funding.
Bush recently requested some $190 billion in war funding, most of which he is likely to get.
Bush shows, through his veto, where his true priorities lie.