Escalating his budget battle with a Democratic Congress, President Bush on Nov. 13 vetoed a spending measure for labor, health, and education programs that would have provided $63.6 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, a 5 percent increase over 2007 spending and 8 percent more than Bush had sought.

Included in the budget bill was $271 million in funding for educational technology, as well as $1.2 billion for career and technical education. Bush had proposed $600 million for the latter program and sought to kill the former entirely.

The president’s veto sets up what could be a nasty showdown over 2008 education spending, with the 2008 fiscal year already two weeks old. In exercising just the sixth veto of his presidency—all have come since Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year—Bush chided the opposition party.

“The majority was elected on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, but so far it’s acting like a teenager with a new credit card,” he told an audience of business and community leaders. “This year alone, the leadership in Congress has proposed to spend $22 billion more than my budget provides. Now, some of them claim that’s not really much of a difference. The scary part is, they seem to mean it.”

Bush vetoed the $150.7 billion labor, health, and education spending measure on the same day he signed a 9 percent increase in the Pentagon’s non-war budget, to $471 billion—although the White House complained that the Pentagon budget, too, contained “some unnecessary spending.”

The defense measure only funds core department operations. It doesn’t include Bush’s $196 billion request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for a nearly $12 billion infusion for new troop vehicles that are resistant to roadside bombs.

Also on Nov. 13, Democrats on Congress’ Joint Economic Committee issued a report estimating the total costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at $1.6 trillion—roughly double the amount the White House has requested altogether so far. White House officials and some economists, however, disputed those figures.

Democrats jumped on Bush’s spending priorities.

“With today’s veto, the president has shown once again how out of touch and out of step he is with the values of America’s families,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “Cancer research, investments in our schools, job training, protecting workers, and many other urgent priorities have all fallen victim to a president who squanders billions of dollars in Iraq but is unwilling to invest in America’s future.”

The education spending measure would have added $500 million to last year’s budget for special education grants to states, for a total of $11.3 billion. That’s $800 million more than Bush had proposed.

It would have funded the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students at $14.3 billion—$1.5 billion more than last year’s budget, and $400 million more than Bush had requested. Improving Teacher Quality state grants would have gotten $3 billion under the bill, $150 million more than last year and $250 million more than the president’s request.

The measure also would have provided a 20 percent increase over Bush’s request for job training programs; $1.4 billion more than Bush’s request for health research at the National Institutes of Health, a 5 percent increase; $2.4 billion for heating subsidies for the poor, $480 million more than Bush requested; and a $225 million increase for community health centers.

Education groups also slammed the president’s veto.

“This administration wants to nickel-and-dime education, and if the president can’t get his way he’s threatening to completely pull the plug,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. “Congress has done the right thing by keeping the interests of students, not the political interests of the president, front and center. Lawmakers must override the veto, so schools get the basic resources they need.”

Said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “It is outrageous that a president who could not bring himself to veto a spending bill for six years can suddenly demand fiscal prudence on the backs of working-class taxpayers. By saying ‘no’ to appropriate funding for these programs, the president yet again has chosen to shortchange students and turn a blind eye to the needs of America’s increasingly beleaguered working families.”

The White House said the health and education spending bill was loaded with 2,000 earmarks—lawmaker-sponsored projects that critics call pork-barrel spending—which Bush wants stripped from the bill.

“Some of its wasteful projects include a prison museum, a sailing school taught aboard a catamaran, and a Portuguese-as-a-second-language program,” the president said. “Congress owes the taxpayers much better than this effort.”

It’s unclear whether Congress can muster enough votes to override Bush’s veto. The House approved the education spending measure, which had the support of more than 50 Republicans, with 274 votes—just three shy of a two-thirds majority. Yet the Senate passed the bill with only 56 votes, 11 short of a veto-proof majority.

The Pentagon spending bill that Bush signed includes a provision that will fund most federal agencies at 2007 levels through Dec. 14. Meanwhile, Congress will go back to work on completing the budget process.

Democrats have offered to work cooperatively with the president to address the priorities of our nation. We believe our differences are not so great that compromise cannot be reached,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responding to Bush’s veto. “But the president must work with us [to find] common ground on behalf of the American people.”

Links:

White House

U.S. Department of Education

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

National Education Association

American Federation of Teachers