The last time a president's party dominated Capitol Hill was in 1993 and 1994, the first two years of President Clinton's term. That period was also marked by zero vetoes, but for a very different reason. Unruly House and Senate Democrats failed to toe the line on Clinton's big-ticket proposals, such as nationalized healthcare, leaving him with few major bills to sign. Lack of party discipline nearly scuttled the North American Free Trade Agreement and his budget. By the end of his second term, Mr. Clinton had issued 37 vetoes.
By contrast, when passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement was in doubt last week, Bush personally made the trip up Pennsylvania Avenue to help bring reluctant Republicans into line. CAFTA's passage, however, was a result due as much to increased party polarization as Bush's arm-twisting, experts say.
The veto, of course, is far better at stopping legislation than at advancing it. But the threat of a veto can steer a bill closer to a president's goals. The transportation bill Bush signed last Wednesday is a case in point.
In 2004, he threatened to veto any highway bill that exceeded $256 billion. This year, he redrew the line at $284 billion. The version originally proposed in the House was well over $350 billion. But the continuing threat of veto eventually brought the final price tag to $286.5 billion, a figure Bush could tolerate.
"For fiscal conservatives, it's frustrating to watch," says David Keating, executive director at the Club for Growth, a Washington group that advocates fiscal responsibility and lower taxes. "He's beginning to lose all credibility with these veto threats."
The word "veto" does not actually appear in the text of the Constitution, but its function is implied in Article I. Significantly, the first presidents used the veto sparingly, reserving its use for legislation they deemed unconstitutional.