WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush, adjusting to the post-Sept. 11 political world as it really is, has locked the door against congressional raids on the Treasury conducted in the name of fighting terrorism. The moment of truth came Nov. 6 at the White House, when the first-year president stood up to the hoary, combative appropriators of Capitol Hill.
That was the meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders where President Bush, after early reluctance, first used the "v" word in threatening to veto spending beyond his limits. His statement astounded assembled senior Democratic members of the Appropriations committees: Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin. In anger, they responded they are much better qualified to run the government than the president.
Bush made clear he will not permit the war against terrorism to unleash a spending binge. He also demolished conjecture that he will let congressional Democrats roll over him. Most important, this sent a message to Capitol Hill -- 10 months after he took the oath -- that he really is president.
The appropriators would expand the $40 billion anti-terrorism package, still mostly not allocated, by $20 billion. They are now pushing the year's spending limit, set at $686 billion after Sept. 11, over $720 billion.
But the Nov. 6 meeting involved more than numbers. Bush, seeking to replicate the bipartisanship he enjoyed as governor of Texas, had believed that the terrorist attacks would spawn a new spirit in Washington. The "Cardinals" of the Appropriations committees tried to load up spending. They had no intention of adhering to the post-Sept. 11 agreement between the president and Congress on the $686 billion limit.
Bush's veto warning relieved Republican anxieties but infuriated the Cardinals. Byrd, senior Democrat in the Senate and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was incredulous. As is his custom, he reverted to ancient Rome by citing Marcus Tullius Cicero as a symbol of senatorial purity resisting dictatorial power. The foremost advocate of congressional supremacy and congressional pork explained to Bush the folly of a veto.
Byrd was lengthy but less heated than Obey, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Astonished administration officials told me Obey lectured the president on his expertise gained during 32 years in Congress in stark contrast to the new boys at the White House.
"That's nonsense!" retorted Obey when I related this account on CNN last Saturday. Instead, he gave his version of what he told Bush, which is worth repeating at length as an insight into how Cardinals think:
"Mr. President, when we come to Congress ... all we are is politicians. All we've shown is that we know how to get elected. But when we come to Congress and we get a committee assignment, that committee assignment turns us into legislators, because we have an area that we focus on and we learn about.
"You need to recognize the fact that the four senior people on the Appropriations Committees, Republican and Democrat alike, believe strongly that we need more money for defense, more money for homeland security. We recognize that you have in Mr. Ridge (Homeland Security director Tom Ridge) a fellow who's new on the job and is trying to get up to speed. So, with all due respect, we have experience that we've developed, and we are trying to use that experience for the good of the country."
The two senior Republican appropriators present -- Rep. Bill Young of Florida and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska -- were also unhappy about the veto threat (though Young has now given Bush his support). The Republicans, however, were much briefer than Byrd and Obey, neither of whom speaks in television sound bites. By the time all the Cardinals finished, Bush was late for another meeting. He did not try to claim presidential prerogatives against Obey's Whig outlook, but shook hands with all present and left the room. That further infuriated the Democratic appropriators.
The Cardinals had viewed anti-terrorism bipartisanship as a way to open spending spigots, and now it is clear that the president understands the game. He has the votes in both the House and Senate to sustain a veto, which he is intent on exercising today as he was on Nov. 6.