WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has laid down his hardest line since Republicans took power in Congress, vowing yesterday to veto an attempt to rewrite a provision in last year's crime bill that was meant to put 100,000 new police officers on the street.
It was the first explicit veto threat from Mr. Clinton since the voters returned a divided government.
The threat comes after several months in which the president has swung between broad attempts at conciliation and brief hints of confrontation. But aides said it marked the onset of a more aggressive phase in drawing differences with his Republican rivals that will begin with an effort to enlist Cabinet officers in fights over welfare, foreign policy and other issues.
"Anyone on Capitol Hill who wants to play partisan politics with police for Americans should listen carefully," the president said yesterday morning in his weekly radio address. "I will veto any effort to repeal or undermine the 100,000 police commitment. Period."
With the new House of Representatives already well on its way toward rewriting major portions of the anti-crime bill that the Democratic Congress approved last fall, Mr. Clinton's warning yesterday was relatively narrow. It aimed only at a Republican proposal that folds separate programs created by the crime bill, including one providing $8 billion for hiring new police, into a single $10 billion anti-crime block grant. The White House has said that would allow mayors to spend money on things such as prisons and street lights rather than hiring the police officers the current law requires.
The measure, the sixth in a Republican anti-crime package, is likely to win House approval later this week.
But Mr. Clinton's threat appeared aimed more directly at the Senate, which is expected to gather its anti-crime measures into a single piece of legislation that it may not want to subject to a presidential veto.
Still, Mr. Clinton said nothing yesterday about the five Republican-backed initiatives that have won House approval over the objections of some Democrats, including measures that would permit prosecutors to use more illegally seized evidence at trial and would place time limits on appeals by death-row inmates. That silence appeared to signal that the White House would be willing to accept them as part of a final bill.
Mr. Clinton was also silent about the crime-prevention programs, including midnight basketball, that along with financing for police officers would be put in jeopardy by the Republican block-grant program. Although he and other Democrats, particularly urban liberals, pushed hard for those programs last summer, their omission yesterday suggested that he was not ready to use his veto to protect them, either.
But after two years and 22 days in which the president has yet to veto a bill, Mr. Clinton's aides described his stern threat yesterday as a product of their renewed thinking about how he can best use a president's ultimate weapon.
Not since Millard Fillmore left the White House 142 years ago has a president waited so long to throw down a veto. Even after the Republicans took over Congress, Mr. Clinton restricted himself to circumlocutions, as in his State of the Union address, when he said of the ban on assault weapons, which won approval last summer: "I will not let it be repealed."
But White House officials say he is now determined to employ this rusting cudgel to shape and block legislation.
Beginning with the raft of top administration officials it has dispatched to appear on the talk shows today, the White House also plans to draw sharper differences between Mr. Clinton's plan to overhaul the welfare system and the rival Republican proposal, which would deny cash assistance to hundreds of thousands of teen-age mothers and to most immigrants, including illegal aliens.
And later in the week, it will dispatch Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Defense Secretary William Perry to Capitol Hill to testify against a Republican-backed measure that the White House says will undermine the president's authority as commander-in-chief. That bill, which is spelled out in the GOP's "Contract with America," would cut U.S. contributions to peacekeeping operations and demand 15 days' notice from the administration when the United Nations is to establish new missions.