President Bush’s Saturday veto of cable reregulation legislation has turned into a hot campaign issue, with the Clinton-Gore camp stridently claiming that Bush nixed the bill to protect his “wealthy friends” in the cable industry.

The Senate will vote today on whether to hand Bush his first-ever veto override and a humiliating loss just weeks before the election. If the Senate override effort is successful, a House of Representatives vote will occur either tonight or tomorrow.

Close votes are expected as proponents of the legislation battle to line up the two-thirds majority needed in each house to override the veto.

Hoping to make political hay out of the Bush veto, the Clinton-Gore campaign harshly attacked the president in a statement released hours after the veto by communications director George Stephanopoulos.

Bush “slapped American consumers across the face, sentencing them to continue paying outrageous cable television bills,” said Stephanopoulos. “Though Bush likes to talk about competition, he once again proved that he’s ready and willing to kill it to protect his wealthy friends.”

Bush has received “nearly $ 900,000 in campaign contributions from cable interests since 1987″ and “maintains a close friendship with Bill Daniels, who runs one of the three top cable brokerage firms, and who has personally lobbied Bush against reform,” claimed Stephanopoulos.

It’s been reported in several cable trade publications that Daniels, based in Denver, has indeed telephoned Bush on a number of occasions to urge a veto of the cable bill.

Stephanopoulos also noted that Daniels hired the president’s son, Neil Bush, for a “$ 60,000-a-year job after the S&L in which the president’s son invested collapsed.”

Stephanopoulos said Clinton and Gore “support the bill which George Bush just vetoed–because they stand with the American consumer, not corporate conglomerates.”

Gore, a leading critic of the cable industry in the Senate, said Bush vetoed “the most important consumer legislation of the year–all to protect his rich friends in the cable monopolies.”

The strong attack by Clinton and Gore may win points on the campaign trail, but it may also alienate Republicans needed to ensure a veto override. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who is being wooed by the White House to reverse himself and vote against the legislation, last week complained that Gore had already gone overboard by turning cable reregulation into a partisan political issue.

White House efforts to kill the legislation have been focused mostly on the Senate, where the bill passed by a 74-25 margin last month. Nine senators would be required to switch their votes to uphold a Bush veto.

Yesterday, Bush invited eight Republican senators who earlier voted for the legislation to a breakfast at the White House, D.C. sources said.

“You can’t believe the amount of pressure that’s being applied,” said one source. “It’s amazing.”

Reports circulated on Friday and Saturday that Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), James Jeffords (R-Vt.) and Strom Thurmond (R-Va.) are considering flip-flopping their votes to back Bush. Other targets of the White House include Warner, Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Thad Cochran (R-Mo.)

One source reported the White House also unsuccessfully tried to encourage Louisiana Democrat John Breaux to switch his vote.

Bush accompanied his veto with a statement claiming the bill “illustrates good intentions gone wrong, fallen prey to special interests. Contrary to the claims made by its proponents, this legislation will not reduce the price Americans pay for cable television service. Rather, the simple truth is that … cable rates will go up, not down.”

Bush based his claim in part on a provision in the bill called “retransmission consent,” the broadcast industry-backed measure that could result in cable operators paying a fee to broadcasters for the right to carry local station signals that cablers now receive for free.

Bush said the “undeniable result” of retrans consent is “higher costs” for cable customers.

Supporters of the cable bill dispute Bush’s claim that the bill will lead to higher rates. Any higher costs from retransmission consent will be more than offset by other rate-reducing provisions in the bill, they claim. The Consumer Federation of America predicts cable rates could fall as much as 30% if the bill becomes law.

Peggy Laramie, a spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Assn., said Saturday, “We hope this anti-consumer bill is headed for defeat and we’re working with the White House to ensure the president’s veto is sustained.”

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