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President ready to exercise first veto

With a savage attack on a Republican Foreign Affairs Bill before Congress, President Bill Clinton this week moved a step closer towards exercising his presidential veto - a power which, unlike every occupant of the White House since the mid- 19th century, he has thus far failed to use.

Ever since Republicans seized control of Congress last November, a presidential veto has seemed inevitable. But, despite urgings from his supporters to draw a line against his opponents and re-assert his role in national policy-making, Mr Clinton has passed over every opportunity. The most recent was a broadcasting tax bill that contained a $30m (pounds 18m) loophole for the media magnate, Rupert Murdoch

As a result, Mr Clinton is the first president since the little remembered Millard Fillmore, in office between 1850 and 1853, never to have used the veto. The others relished the chance to flex their constitutional muscle, even when their own party controlled Congress.

Democrats ruled Capitol Hill throughout the Depression and the Second World War. But that did not stop Mr Clinton's political idol, Franklin Roosevelt, from vetoing 635 bills, roughly one a week throughout 12 years in office. By the same point in their terms, Jimmy Carter and George Bush had vetoed 19 and 21 bills.

The Clinton record is a perfect zero, a performance only reinforcing the conventional Washington wisdom that the President is a soft touch who is scared of confrontation.

That reputation may soon be given the lie. Mr Clinton has warned that he will veto Republican bills that would roll back anti-gun legislation and make cuts in various education, housing and other programmes approved by the previous Democratic Congress.

This week, mooted changes in welfare came under the veto threat. Now, foreign policy has joined the list.

The legislation, contained in separate but similar bills before the House and Senate, would slash US foreign aid, merge or abolish foreign-policy agencies, and impose important changes in policy towards Russia, China, Cuba and North Korea.

In a blistering attack this week, Mr Clinton described the proposals as a "frontal assault" on presidential authority, and as the "most isolationist" legislation produced by Congress in half a century.

The House Bill, virtually certain of passage, is due to be voted on today, while the Senate measure, shepherded by Jesse Helms, is scheduled to come to the floor in June. In its present form, said the President, "I will veto it."

But he may yet not live up to his word. The "line-item veto" - the power that would allow a President to block parts of a bill which he otherwise favoured - is not yet law. Until it is, Republicans can be expected to sweeten the bills that Mr Clinton dislikes with provisions he can hardly turn down.