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Bush makes history - a five-year streak without saying 'no'

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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.

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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.

By the 20th century, vetoes were being issued more frequently, and being used more often as a political tactic than as a constitutional filter. President Franklin Roosevelt issued more than 600 vetoes - and that occurred even with huge Demo-cratic majorities.

Bush, however, hasn't even used the veto on legislation he deemed unconstitutional, such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform he signed in 2002. That can be read as a sign of weakness, says Matthew Spalding, an expert on American political history at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Veto power has withered away from disuse."

Others take the opposite view. "Presidents who use the veto a lot are weak," says Bruce Altschuler, a professor of political science at Oswego State University of New York, noting Gerald Ford's time in office.

"More-successful presidents use it as a negotiation tool. When Bush has gone to Congress with [veto] threats, he has been effective," he notes.

Still, Bush may have to rely on the veto in years ahead because presidential power typically wanes in a second term. "A president's second term is like an hour glass with the sand running out," says Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Already, Bush has struggled to marshal his party troops behind plans to partially privatize Social Security.

A test of GOP unity could come next month, when Congress will consider a move to relax Bush's limits on federal funding for stem-cell research. Senate majority leader Bill Frist - who is believed to be eyeing a presidential run in 2008 - announced a break with the president just before the August recess last week, a sign that fissures in the Republican bedrock are already appearing.

"The veto is always there; it's the paddle on the wall," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Everybody knows it's there. That gives the president a lot of power, no matter the alignment."