WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton, confronted by a rambunctious Republican Congress that threatens to dismantle his 1994 crime bill, is waving one of the few powerful weapons left to him -- his veto pen.
The great unknown in the nation's capital, however, is: Would Mr. Clinton actually use it?
With his 1996 reelection threatened by long-term Republican gains across the country, the White House is using veto threats to distinguish Clinton from the GOP Congress.
But political analysts are skeptical. They doubt that the veto is an effective way to undergird a shaky presidency.
The crime bill isn't the president's first brandishing of the veto pen. He waved it once as a kind of show-and-tell prop in his 1993 State of the Union address. But this time he may pull off the sheath if the Senate goes along with House changes to the 1994 crime package.
Cabinet officials, seeking to help Clinton, have also taken a higher profile in news conferences and broadcasts to push administration policy initiatives such as a minimum-wage increase. Late last month, the president bypassed a reluctant Congress and exercised seldom-used executive authority to secure loan guarantees for Mexico.
History provides conflicting lessons about the utility of the veto. President Eisenhower effectively used the veto to bolster his low approval ratings in 1958. Presidents Ford and Bush relied heavily on the veto to exercise influence over congressional opponents and were not reelected.
Some political scientists argue that the veto, in modern times, is a sign of executive weakness; that Clinton is resorting to it now, after two years in office, underscores his lack of influence over the Republican Congress.
''Since he's never used the veto, nobody knows if a Clinton threat means anything,'' says Charles Jones, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution here. ''The veto is not a preferable strategy. It suggests the president doesn't have the initiative, that he's not in charge.''
Historically, presidents have struggled over the decision to use the veto. Early executives held the view that it should be used only when legislation threatened constitutional principles.
This is, in fact, the argument Clinton is using against the National Security Restoration Act in the House. The bill would cut US spending for United Nations peacekeeping operations, press for expansion of NATO, require deployment of a missile-defense system, and complicate the president's ability to place US troops under foreign command.
Clinton sent a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week saying the bill ''would infringe upon my constitutional authority'' as commander in chief.
The emerging battle echoes the fight over the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a bid by Congress to recapture control from President Nixon over decisions governing the Vietnam War.
That bill required the president to consult the Congress before placing military forces in harm's way or engaging in prolonged conflict. Nixon vetoed the bill as an infringement of his constitutional authority, but Congress overrode his action.
The National Security Restoration Act, political analysts say, appears to be an attempt by Congress to assert its role.
Though a Clinton veto may survive an override attempt, analysts say he would be taking a risk. The public sees little point in risking US troops in Somalia or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
''The national security veto is risky in the sense that rabid isolationism seems popular right now,'' says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. ''I don't think Bill Clinton is going to be able to win in the court of public opinion.''
Drawing the line
His prospects for political victory appear better, however, on the crime bill. In this case, Clinton is using the veto almost as a line-item veto, as Mr. Bush did, to prompt Congress to remove provisions he opposes in an effort to avoid rejecting the entire bill.
The House has passed six measures designed to replace Clinton's package from last year. Most of the provisions would clamp down harder on violent criminals, and Clinton seems prepared to accept them. But he has vowed to veto the last measure, which would replace funds earmarked for new police officers and drug courts with $10 billion in discretionary block grants to state and local governments.
So far, Clinton seems to be winning. The block-grant measure passed in the House with only 238 votes, short of the 290 needed to override a veto. The threat also seems to be having its intended effect in the Senate, where Republicans may roll the House measures into one bill and jettison the block-grant proposal.