WASHINGTON — Washington--The Senate kept President Bush's 16-0 winnin streak intact last week by sustaining his veto of a civil rights bill. But Mr. Bush's veto strategy -- which even his Democratic critics concede has been masterful -- is in danger of crumbling under the growing weight of Republican discontent.
President Bush has used the veto with greater regularity than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had at this point in his administration: 16 for Mr. Bush to Mr. Reagan's 10. Moreover, Congress overrode two Reagan vetoes in his second year in office, while Mr. Bush is still undefeated.
In fact, the Bush record to date is on a par with that of a legendary master of legislative arm-twisting, Lyndon B. Johnson, during his six years in the White House. Not counting pocket vetoes, which occur after Congress has adjourned and which lawmakers therefore cannot vote to override, all 16 of President Johnson's regular vetoes were sustained.
The numbers alone might lead to the conclusion that Mr. Bush, who had a brief legislative career in the House, is on a par with Lyndon Johnson for legislative skill and ahead of Mr. Reagan -- "the Great Communicator" -- in getting Congress to bend to his will.
But in fact, the secret of Mr. Bush's success has been a combination of political lessons learned during a long Washington career and an acute awareness of the shallowness of his support in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.
Mr. Bush has generally picked his fights carefully, making his point when it would shore up some of his own political vulnerabilities without risk of reversal by Congress.
During his first year in office, three of 10 presidential vetoes concerned abortion funding: He twice vetoed measures that would have permitted federal funds to be used for abortions in cases of rape or incest, and he vetoed a bill that would have allowed local tax dollars in the District of Columbia to be used for abortions for poor women. For conservatives in his own party who questioned his dedication to the anti-abortion cause in the past, the vetoes shored up his support without threat of contradiction by a Congress that was already deeply divided on the sensitive abortion issue.
"Clearly, Reagan and Bush take very different approaches to the veto," said Lawrence J. DeNardis, a former Republican member of the House during the early Reagan years. Dr. DeNardis, who did his doctoral dissertation on the Senate's use of legislative "holds" as a type of congressional veto power, is now president of the Connecticut Public Expenditure Council, a non-partisan research group.
"Reagan used the veto as an expression of his ideology. He'd take a stand on a variety of issues, whether he could sustain a veto or not," Dr. DeNardis said.
But he sees President Bush as "a governmentalist" -- one who tries to govern and work out compromises among competing interests on an issue and can thus head off confrontations that end in a veto.
During his eight years in the White House, President Reagan issued 78 vetoes, of which 39 were pocket vetoes. Congress overrode a Reagan veto nine times to enact a law over his objections; Congress tried unsuccessfully to override a Reagan veto on seven occasions. The rest of the time, Congressional leaders simply didn't bother to try to override, concluding either that they lacked the necessary two-thirds vote in each chamber or that the issue was unimportant.
The clearest example of Mr. Reagan's misuse of the veto, and of the lessons Mr. Bush learned while vice president, was a highway and water projects bill that is still a sore subject with congressional Republicans even though they joined with Democrats in an overwhelming vote to override the president's veto.
"Some of the president's strongest Republican supporters were sponsors of that bill or had important projects for their home states in it," recalled Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. The bill worked its way through the House and Senate with nary a word of complaint from the White House, but when it reached Mr. Reagan's desk, he suddenly vetoed it on the grounds that it was a costly pork-barrel bill.
"I got called to the White House for an arm-twisting session by the president on that bill, and George Bush was there. I told them why I couldn't support them, that I had voted for the original bill and I couldn't switch my position now. On the way out, Bush came up to me and said, 'You know, your reasons were convincing.' Now that he's president, George Bush remembers all of that," Mr. Cochran said.
The Bush administration has been willing to get involved with legislation early in the process on Capitol Hill, and Mr. Bush's personal contacts with legislators give him an advantage in sounding out their mood and helping to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Mr. Bush is "in early on the development of a bill and in negotiations with the Congress, and he telegraphs to his friends in the Congress ahead of time if he's going to veto," Mr. Cochran said.