How To Shape Policy By a Threat to Say No

President's positions on civil rights expansion, abortion counseling, and anticrime bill are surviving because of veto threat

GEORGE BUSH is shaping the terms of debate on some prominent bills through the careful use of veto power, even when he holds only minority support on Capitol Hill.On new anti-crime measures, civil rights expansions, and abortion information in federally-funded clinics, some Bush positions are surviving even though they can clearly be outvoted. With 21 vetoes so far, none of them overridden, President Bush has established the seriousness of his veto threats. It is the threat, not the veto, that has the most power to change legislation. The real bargaining strength of the White House, however, appears to be that the Congress wants new legislation to pass more than the White House does. The most extreme case is over removing the ban on federally funded health clinics giving information about abortion. The White House favors the ban and has threatened to veto the bill that would remove it. The House voted for the bill, however, 353 to 74 on June 26. This majority amply surpasses the two- thirds needed to override a presidential veto. But Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, a leading anti-abortion organizer in Congress, says his forces were deliberately underplaying their hand in that first vote, and he expresses confidence that abortion foes could sustain a presidential veto.

Ban under review The White House announced this week that the ban itself was under a new staff review. "We may be faced with a veto, and we want to consider our options," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. If the White House intends to accept a compromise on the ban, it needs to move only enough to sustain a veto in either legislative chamber. This is the negative power the veto holds. It works better at stopping legislation than forcing change. But this seems to suit Bush's very low-key agenda. "There is a strong sense in Congress and elsewhere that the president is effective simply by not having anything he wants [passed]," says Mark Peterson, a Brookings Institution political scientist who is currently a Congressional fellow. On civil rights bills intended to roll back recent Supreme Court decisions, the White House has dictated the terms of negotiation even though a solid majority on Capitol Hill is on the other side. A bill President Bush has promised to veto was passed by the House just a few votes shy of enough to override the veto. Right now, in fact, negotiations have ground to a halt. Republican Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri and eight other Republican senators attempted through June to build a compromise between the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress. Mr. Danforth finally abandoned the effort to budge the White House position from its position. Yet the White House veto of a Democratic civil rights bill last fall was sustained in the Senate by only one vote. On the crime bill taking shape this week on the Senate floor, the Bush administration has already signaled that it will accept some major Democratic provisions, such as a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. But a veto threat, conveyed by the US Department of Justice, also forced out of the bill a provision that allowed challenges to the death penalty based on its unequal racial impact.

Ford vetoed more The veto is always used more heavily by presidents facing an opposition Congress. Bush's veto rate is high, but not as high as was President Gerald Ford's. Mr. Ford, however, was overridden on 12 out of 46 vetoes of public bills. The veto works best when it is predictable. Presidents can use the veto threat by making it clear very early in the shaping of legislation what would trigger a veto. Bush has done that. Bush has been "reasonably effective" at building bipartisan coalitions on one hand and using the "line-in-the-sand veto approach" on the other to coax legislation into an acceptable form, says Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University presidential scholar. "He has prevented the Democrats from passing any legislation that he really can't live with," he says. The veto strategy has costs, though. In shutting down the progress of the civil rights bill, for example, Bush also loses the elements of the bill he favors. "It forces you to throw out the baby with the bathwater," says George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University, an expert on relations between the president and Congress.

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