The "veto bubble" has finally burst. Five-and-a-half years into his presidency, George W. Bush has ended his record stretch of bill-signings as he rejected legislation Wednesday that would expand federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research.
Attempts in Congress to override the veto, which would require a two-thirds vote, were expected to fail.
Analysts agree that President Bush's veto was risky but unavoidable. Since the issue of stem-cell research arose early in his presidency, when Mr. Bush approved federal funding of preexisting stem-cell lines, he has remained adamant that no federal monies be used on newer cell colonies. The president believes the killing of human embryos, from which stem cells are harvested, is murder, says press secretary Tony Snow.
The issue matters deeply to religious conservatives, both evangelical and Catholic, and their support is crucial to Bush as he struggles to boost his low public approval ratings. By casting his first veto – holding out longer than any president since Thomas Jefferson – on the stem-cell issue, the president has added symbolic significance to Wednesday's action.
"There's a silver lining for Bush, in that he can claim that he sticks to his principles," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. "Just as Congress is restive, a lot of social conservatives are restive, too. But this is a pretty popular bill. I'm sure the White House is mindful that there will be costs."
Polls show large majorities of Americans support expanded federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, which scientists believe holds promise in combating diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. Democrats promised to make Bush's stem-cell veto a central campaign issue this fall, as they seek to retake control of Congress in the November elections.
But it will be difficult to tar all Republicans, since many voted for the expanded research, including some known for their socially conservative views, such as Utah's two senators and the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee.
In battleground states, such as Missouri and Pennsylvania, "no" votes cast by Republican incumbents seeking reelection could also play big in the election. Sen. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri faces a tough race against state auditor Claire McCaskill, and with stem-cell research on the ballot, it's become a top campaign issue. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a vocal opponent of the bill, is also battling for reelection. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen, who also voted "no," could face questions from the same moderate suburbanites who helped elect the state's second Democratic governor in a row last November.
On the flip side, Bush's veto could help moderate Republicans struggling to win reelection. "It will highlight the fact that not all our Republicans move in lock step with the president," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which pushed hard for the stem-cell research legislation.
Over the years, the lack of vetoed legislation has become a signature feature of Bush's presidency. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress during most of Bush's time in office, the leaders in charge have worked to pass legislation they are confident the president will sign, rather than set up conflict. Bush has issued many veto threats – 141 in all, according to Mr. Snow – but until this week, both Bush and Congress have been willing to compromise. At times, Bush has signed bills that didn't thrill him – such as campaign finance reform – in the name of party unity.
With spending bills, such as expensive highway legislation, Bush has threatened vetoes, and by doing so brought the cost down, even if it didn't reach the level he prescribed. But some analysts argue that it would have been smart for Bush to veto some of those, to prove that he is tough on spending – a sore point with fiscal conservatives upset by the skyrocketing federal debt. And by vetoing legislation with less popular appeal than the stem-cell bill, he could have avoided the extra attention Wednesday's "first veto" is receiving.
"He should have picked a pork bill and vetoed it," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "He has a terrible problem with overspending, with his own base, not to mention the history books. Bush thinks the judgment of history will be centered on Iraq ... but I think it will also reflect the fiscal disaster he has left behind."