AS Bill Clinton waves his veto pen in anger, all signs point to a newly emboldened chief executive suddenly eager to prove his relevance to the Republican power center on Capitol Hill.
Taking a page from the GOP playbook of years past, President Clinton's strategy appears to be a simple, defensive one: Let Republicans propose, then attempt to shape policy through criticism without always providing detailed alternatives.
It's ''probably useful'' short-term for Clinton to veto something now ''because of the public perception of him that he can be rolled,'' says George Edwards III, a political expert at Texas A&M University. ''It's a means of enforcing presidential respect.''
In the long term, though, ''it doesn't change the fact that Medicare is going to go broke by 2002 and that he's not structuring any choices or defining any issues,'' Dr. Edwards adds.
Politically, Clinton has every reason to play the naysayer. ''Look at his polling numbers,'' says Stanley Collender, a budget analyst at Price Waterhouse. The president's job-approval rating is up 10 points since early April -- from 46 percent to 56 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll -- the highest level in more than a year.
Further, a majority disapproves of both House and Senate Republican plans for big cuts in government programs proposed in their balanced-budget resolutions.
As promised, Clinton declared he would veto the $16.4 billion spending-cuts bill that a House-Senate conference approved this week, complaining it spared ''pork'' while cutting money for education. Never mind that the so-called rescissions bill also provided money for Oklahoma and California disaster relief as well as antiterrorism measures. His administration's message: Let the GOP figure out how to get the money approved.
Clinton also appears unfazed by Republican taunts that he's AWOL -- ''absent without leadership'' -- on the budget itself, unwilling to come up with his own balanced-budget plan and content to throw darts at the Republicans'. The President has asked Democratic leaders in Congress to hold off for a few weeks before proposing their own budget alternatives (some Democratic factions did so anyway).
Clinton is also showing heightened resolve on personnel matters. He is sticking by Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, even after the announcement this week that a special prosecutor will investigate his finances. And Dr. Henry Foster, whose nomination as surgeon-general once looked dead in the water, now has a good shot at being confirmed, congressional observers say.
On the promised veto of the rescissions bill, which cancels money that's been appropriated but not spent, Clinton is clearly showing he's feeling in charge, says Mr. Collender, a former congressional budget aide. ''If the [recisions] bill had come up 1 1/2 months ago, he would have signed it,'' he says, pointing out that a president can always come up with a reason to sign -- or not sign -- a catch-all bill like this.
The differences between Clinton and Congress on the bill are minor in dollar terms. Out of the $16.4 billion package, Clinton objects to only $1.4 billion worth. He would propose $1.5 billion in cuts in different programs than the GOP -- including spending for courthouses, highway demonstration projects, and government travel.
Despite the small monetary differences, Clinton's first imminent veto -- after an extraordinary 2 1/2-year stretch without one -- takes on added significance.
And as the prospect looms, Republicans can only fret about what to do. They know it will be very tough to gain the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to override a presidential veto. House Republican leaders also face a contingent of hard-line freshmen who say they are not willing to move toward the Senate position on budget cuts, which Clinton had said he would support.
Republicans complain that the president waited until the House-Senate conference on recisions had finished before stating explicitly what he wanted. In a letter to Clinton, House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, wrote:
''For the past several months, my committee has begged you to come forward with proposed cuts. You remained silent until after the conference has closed.''
As the House prepared to vote on the rescissions bill late this week, House leaders said they had no plans to reopen the conference to change the bill. Thus the showdown was set.