President Bush is feeling newly empowered by threatening to veto legislation approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress. The threats seem to be working with the lawmakers. They are rolling over very easily as they rush to get home for Christmas or to catch up on re-election campaigning. When he had the backing of a Republican Congress, the president vetoed only one bill in his first six years in office; that bill would have expanded federal support for stem cell research. But right now he is on a roll, getting what he wants without a veto pen but merely making the threat. He was able to derail the Democrats yearlong attempt to set a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. Just before the holiday recess, the Senate approved an additional $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with no strings attached -- which the president will sign. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell boasted: "We have come to a very successful conclusion of this year's Congress." The president, of course, is aided by the weak Democratic congressional leadership that has thrown in the towel without a fight, evoking disappointment among supporters who thought the last election that gave the Democrats a slight edge on Capitol Hill would make a difference. It's true that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., don't have enough votes to overcome a veto. (The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to override a veto.) But why not put the spotlight on the GOP's negative approach to the nation's big problems? The Democrats may have to pay politically for bowing to the White House too often and not having the stomach for a filibuster or stamina to keep the pressure on. Bush or his aides or his Cabinet officers have raised the possibility that the president would veto more than 50 bills. The will of the American people to end the mayhem in Iraq does not seem to matter to Bush, a political lame duck who obviously now feels free to pursue his conservative agenda without constraints. You would think he would want to end his presidency with a clean slate and a path to peace. The president also has said he would veto legislation that would require U.S. intelligence agencies to abide by the Army's rules on interrogation. Those rules forbid waterboarding -- a method of near-drowning -- of prisoners during interrogation. White House press secretary Dana Perino has claimed that the technique is permissible and legal when used by the CIA on "hardened terrorists." The Geneva Conventions and human rights groups classify waterboarding as torture. Among the other bills on the president's veto agenda is a pending measure that would permit the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies. Current law forbids the government from seeking lower prices for medicine. Can you believe it? The Democrats should force the Republicans to actually conduct a filibuster rather than cave in at the mere threat of a talk-a-thon. The voters then will know which party has supported the president's agenda, such as his veto of expansion of child-health legislation. Bush said it was a step toward "federalizing medicine." Aides said the president is upset that the public might think he is against health care for children. Also targeted for a veto is the whistleblower protection measure which gives legal protection to federal employees working in national security and those who work under government contracts. These whistle-blowers help expose waste, fraud and abuse involving U.S. tax dollars. Still pending is the Foreign Intelligence Authorization Act, which covers the activities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) and other spying. Reid has delayed Senate debate on the controversial legislation until after the Christmas recess. The bill would give retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies from lawsuits charging invasion of privacy for their role in cooperating with the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Bush also signaled a veto on legislation that would overturn his executive order blocking the public release of President Reagan's public papers. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, was vice president in the Reagan administration. Someday the president may learn we have three equal branches of government and that Congress has a check on executive power. Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com.
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