"I must respectfully disagree with President Bush's veto of this important and long overdue water resources development act," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in explaining the rare rebellion of the GOP faithful toward the president.
The vote was 361-54, well over the two-thirds majority needed to negate a presidential veto. The Senate, which approved the bill 81-12 in September, could cast its override vote as early as Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Bush's argument that the bill is fiscally irresponsible rings hollow when the White House is asking for an additional $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Fiscally responsible people maintain their infrastructure," he said. "Fiscally responsible people know that clean water and safe harbors aid our commerce and the health of our people."
Asked whether the veto override was essentially a crack in the dam - the first in perhaps a string of veto overrides as Bush's power wanes - White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "We'll see about that."
"One thing that the president would like to do is to make sure that he's on the right side of federal taxpayers," Perino said. "And that's what he's doing with this veto."
Bush did not veto a single bill during the first five years of his presidency, when Congress was mainly in GOP hands. He has since vetoed a stem cell research bill twice, an Iraq spending bill that set guidelines for troop withdrawal and a children's health insurance bill. He vetoed the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, on Nov. 2, saying it was too expensive.
Since Democrats gained control of Congress in January, Bush has issued dozens of veto threats, warning he will veto annual spending bills that go beyond his budget levels. As Congress winds down for the year, veto threats hang over a $288 billion farm bill the Senate is considering and new attempts to come up with a children's health insurance bill.
The Water Resources Development Act includes hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers projects, although a large chunk of the proposed funding would go to the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast and the Florida Everglades.
Lawmakers from both parties representing those areas stressed that Bush was misguided in trying to kill the bill. "Without a Water Resources Development Act, which is seven years overdue, we are seeing our coastline disappear," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La.
The few critics pointed out that the Army Corps now has a backlog of $58 billion worth of projects and an annual budget of only about $2 billion to address them. "We simply can't continue to add to the backlog of projects that are already out there," said Rep. Jeff Flake., R-Ariz.
The bill, the first water system restoration and flood control authorization passed by Congress since 2000, would cost $11.2 billion over the next four years and $12 billion in the 10 years after that, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Flood protection projects along the Gulf Coast, including a 100-year levee protection in New Orleans, would cost about $7 billion if fully funded. The bill approves projects but does not fund them.
It would authorize the construction of navigation improvements for the Upper Mississippi River, at an estimated federal cost of $1.9 billion, and an ecosystem restoration project for the Upper Mississippi costing $1.7 billion.
The Indian River Lagoon project in the Florida Everglades would be funded at about $700 million.
Addressing the issue of wastefulness in past Army Corps projects, the bill calls for an independent peer review process of all Corps projects costing $45 million or more.
The Senate is expected to approve the veto override by a comfortable margin. Last month, some 20 Senate Republicans, including conservatives such as David Vitter, R-La., and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., wrote Bush urging him to support the bill. "Hurricane Katrina and the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minnesota are two recent examples of the dangers in under-investing in our nation's key infrastructure," they wrote.