Washington -- PRESIDENT BUSH won another of his strange victories the other day when the Senate passed 55-44 a bill to put tough restrictions on trade with China. By conventional scorekeeping, that might look like a loss for the White House. But the operative thing was that the Democrats fell far short of enough votes to override the certain Bush veto.
In his two-and-a-half years in office Bush already has vetoed 21 bills and come away a winner every time. Marshaling 34 votes in the Senate, the number needed to block an override, is easily within his reach. There are 43 Republicans and if some of them defect, as they did on China, Bush usually can round up a few stray Democrats with parochial reasons for backing him. In the case of most-favored-nation status for China, the defectors were farm belt Democrats reflecting the reality that China buys more wheat from the United States than any other nation.
Presidents dealing with a Congress controlled by the other party inevitably rely on the veto more often than those whose own party is in charge. Richard M. Nixon vetoed 40 bills during his five-and-a-half years in office, and Jerry Ford, faced with an overwhelmingly hostile Congress, vetoed 61 in his 29 months in office.
There are two things different about Bush's use of the veto. The first is his remarkable success in never yet having been overridden. Most presidents are overridden 20 to 25 percent of the time.
Even the enormously popular Ronald Reagan had 10 of his 77 vetoes overridden.
What seems to be most unusual, however, is that Bush's entire strategy for dealing with Congress seems to rest on the veto. Rather than sending Congress realistic initiatives of his own, then bargaining with congressional Democrats, Bush makes his political point by vetoing bills and putting the opposition in a take-it-or-leave-it situation, then prevailing with minority support in Congress. In the China case, for example, the congressional sentiment -- and one that reflects public opinion since Tiananmen Square -- has been overwhelmingly behind using trade restrictions to punish China on human rights grounds.
The House passed its version 313-112, obviously enough to provide the two-thirds of those present and voting to override. But the Senate vote fell short after the White House made a few minor concessions to those grain belt Democrats.
The president also uses the veto to send political messages. That is what he did last year in rejecting the Democratic civil
rights bill on the ground it provided for racial "quotas" in employment practices. In this case, Bush was clearly exploiting the political advantage since polls show so much hostility to affirmative action programs. And the White House has underlined the political intent by refusing to bargain seriously on a new version of the bill, even with moderate Senate Republicans. The message is clear: Bush would rather have the issue to use in 1992 than a civil rights bill.
The president may be facing a trickier situation, however, if he vetoes legislation to overrule the Supreme Court decision prohibiting federally funded clinics from offering advice on abortions -- the so-called gag rule decision.
The bill has assured veto-proof backing in the House and possibly, although not certainly, enough votes in the Senate. In this case, the problem for the White House lies with Republicans in Congress who are unwilling to adopt an extremist position against abortion rights that Bush holds but, the polls show, most voters do not.
Attempts to compromise the issue haven't worked. The White House alternative was such a token concession it was rejected by the Senate 64-35 -- meaning with a majority within three votes of the two-thirds needed for an override. But if the president vetoes the bill, he can be expected to pull out all stops in calling on Republican loyalties. So no one would be surprised if, once again, the minority rules -- even if at some political cost.
The point is that, whatever the issue, Bush is far more inclined to govern by acting as a gatekeeper to reject Democratic legislation than he is to try to seek bipartisan compromises through negotiations with Congress.
It is a strategy that has served him well so far. But it is not one that provides him with any record of accomplishment for his campaign next year. At the moment, that may not seem necessary, but in politics nothing lasts forever.