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Perils of Wielding a Veto Pen

Although he's used it sparingly, Clinton could lose clout if he starts using the veto more now.

By putting his veto pen to the Iran Missile Proliferation Act on Tuesday, President Clinton blocked a bill he says would have a chilling effect on US foreign policy. But in bouncing the bill he also may have begun the opening act of a veto show that's set to last for the rest of his time in office.

So far in his presidency, Mr. Clinton has vetoed a relatively few 22 bills. Even detractors applaud his skillful and minimalist use of this powerful tool.

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But increased use - and threatened use - typically begins at the midpoint of second presidential terms. Some think Clinton has rounded that corner. If so, this could herald a period in which the legislative influence of this minority-party president begins to fade.

"Look at the half dozen [threats] out there. That is a key sign of willingness to use the veto, and clear sign to Congress," says Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York, Cortland.

Clinton vetoed the Iran bill despite admonitions by some in his own party. The measure would impose sanctions on firms selling missile technology to Iran. It was specifically aimed at companies in Russia that may be helping Iran.

Clinton's stance is that the act would backfire by creating an atmosphere of noncooperation, while also harming political and economic relationships.

The president also has a list of threats pending on legislation that could reach his desk by fall. They far eclipse anything he's done up to this point in his tenure.

Current veto threats include:

* A bill headed to his desk today to boost the amount parents can set aside, tax free, for private-school tuition.

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* Attempts to ban national education testing.

* Attempts to ban use of statistical sampling for the 2000 census.

* Attempts to ban so-called "partial birth" abortions.

* An immigration bill that would expand the number of visas for skilled workers from 65,000 to 115,000 for each of the next four years.

Vice President Al Gore has also made vague threats against pending spending bills the White House considers "environmentally damaging."

For a president who has faced opposite-party control of Congress for most of his tenure, Clinton has used the veto sparingly.

George Bush piled up 44 in one term. Ronald Reagan made 78.

"Strategically," is how Clinton has used the veto pen says Stephen Moore, fiscal policy director at the Cato Institute here. "He proved that when it comes to a fight with Congress, he has not only the veto, but the bully pulpit."

In 1995, Clinton struck down the Republican-drafted budget and won the rhetorical battle, laying blame on GOP members on the hill.

"If you look at the politics of the shut down, it was a big turning point for Bill Clinton. He was reelected in part because he shifted culpability to Republicans," says George Edwards, director of presidential studies at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. "They are still nervous about taking him on."

The veto giants who loom large in US history include Grover Cleveland (414 confirmed rejections) and Franklin Roosevelt (635). They're remembered for eagerness to bounce bills just to spite Congress. But the mythology is overblown. They often vetoed the now-little-used "private bill," which dealt with individual needs of members of Congress.

Today the veto is still an effective tool in blocking big congressional initiatives, but it does little to advance an agenda.

Indeed, too many vetoes could stymie Clinton's agenda, which includes tobacco legislation, IMF funds, and permanent most-favored-nation trade status for China. "If you rely too much on the veto and not enough on constructive bargaining with Congress, it eggs Congress on to be more confrontational," says Professor Spitzer. "After a while, the country begins to view the president in purely negative terms."

Given the other events of his tenure, it is unlikely Clinton will be remembered for his veto strategy. But history will remember him as the first president ever to use the line-item veto.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule within a week on the constitutionality of the new power that allows presidents to excise line items within larger appropriations measures. Last year, Clinton targeted 11 bills with his line-item pen, vetoing 82 specific items.

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