WASHINGTON -- After nearly three years as president, George Bush has vetoed so many bills that Congress' continuing failure to override them has hardly merited a second glance.
But this week that changed. On Monday, the characteristically hyper-cautious speaker of the House, Representative Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., broke with form and predicted the first-ever reversal of a Bush veto the next day. The House was to take up a measure overriding the president's rejection of a bill permitting abortion counseling at federally subsidized family planning clinics.
But when the smoke cleared Tuesday, Mr. Bush's record remained intact, his 24-veto streak surviving by a mere dozen votes.
"This was a vote that was focused in on by many anti-abortion groups as an abortion vote," Mr. Foley said yesterday. "I don't think it was fair, but they made this an intensely lobbied issue on that point."
Fair or not, the episode was a painful one for the Democratic leadership, not only because of Mr. Foley's wayward prediction. Polls show a decisive public majority behind the Democrats' stance, and, indeed, many White House officials believe the president's position leaves him politically vulnerable.
Given that, some Democrats wonder why their leadership was unable to round up the necessary two-thirds majority needed to override a veto on an issue that, by all accounts, has the Republicans on the losing side. If we can't override this veto, they ask, what veto can we expect to override?
"Here's your headline: Foley [expletive] up," thundered a Democrat who requested anonymity. "We've got the economy in the toilet and Bush about to be flushed away with it, and the speaker pulls him out, hands him a towel and a fresh change of clothes."
Though that assessment may be unduly harsh, it is thought that Mr. Foley's prediction raised the stakes surrounding Tuesday's vote, handing the president a political windfall while reinforcing perceptions of an ineffectual Democratic Congress.
But, in the speaker's defense, Democrats and Republicans alike say that anti-abortion lobbyists and administration officials presented the vote in such as way as to make an override next to impossible.
Despite the setback, most Democrats appeared optimistic about their chances of turning the issue around -- and against Mr. Bush.
Several Planned Parenthood clinics said they would refuse federal funding and curtail many services so that they could continue providing abortion advice.
Moreover, several Democrats pledged to bring the issue up again next year and, if necessary, force another veto by Mr. Bush.
"This business of the president's veto count is totally 'inside the Beltway.' Nobody keeps track of whether Congress overrides or doesn't. Nobody cares," said Representative Edward F. Feighan, Ohio. "But people do care if he is completely out of step on things. We're just going to make sure they're aware of how out of step he is."