WASHINGTON -- It seemed for a long time there that President Clinton was afraid the country would wash his mouth out with soap if he dared to utter the "V" word too often. In the last two weeks, however, he has been saying repeatedly that, yes, he will veto legislation he doesn't like sent to him by the Republican-controlled Congress.
It is a development that will be welcomed by Democrats in Congress who have been concerned that the Republican takeover of Nov. 8 might have left him politically shell-shocked and reluctant to fight.
The impression that the president was unwilling to use his veto power led to a contentious meeting with House Democrats last week in which he reportedly was told that voters think he lacks conviction. From all reports, Clinton angrily defended himself and complained of his visitors' timidity in standing up for him.
The immediate issue was legislation providing a better tax break for the self-employed to buy health insurance, which Clinton favors. But attached to it was a provision giving a special tax break to publisher Rupert Murdoch, who owns the publishing house that has signed House Speaker Newt Gingrich to his controversial book deal.
Clinton said he would sign it because he believed the main feature was very desirable. The House Democrats argued that if he vetoed it, the Murdoch tax break could be removed and the bill sent back to him for signature. And, obviously, the Republicans could be fingered for practicing business as usual in having passed it in its original form.
Even before this meeting and airing of gripes, however, the president was stepping up his rhetoric on taking on the Republican Congress.
In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 7, he said that while "I was not elected president to pile up a stack of vetoes," he was going to start using the weapon if specific legislation he couldn't live with got to his desk. He said he would veto "any [regulatory reform] bill that lets a bunch of lawyers tie up regulation for years," as well as "any [litigation] bill with a 'loser pay' requirement such as that which was in the House bill."
He repeated that he would veto any Republican effort to repeal last year's crime bill commitment to 100,000 additional police on the streets and its ban on assault weapons as well as the House-passed requirement "that government pay property owners billions of dollars every time we act to defend our national heritage of seashores, or wetlands, or open spaces."
In a CNN interview Friday, Clinton said that the House Republicans had their time in the sun, and that when the Senate gets through, it will be his turn and he won't hesitate to use the veto.
Told that he was the first president in about 140 years "to go this far in his presidency without a single veto," Clinton said it was because the last Congress passed more than 80 percent of his agenda and "did not send me anything they knew I was going to veto."
Then, however, his fellow Democrats controlled Congress. Now, with the Republicans in charge, he said, "if they send me bad bills, I'll be happy to veto them."
In the past two years, he said, "I had no occasion to veto a bill. I have no doubt that I will have occasions to veto bills now." Asked about the House version of welfare reform, he said: "Do you want to see a veto? If the Senate passes the House bill, I'd be happy to veto."
In his weekend radio address, the president outlined three areas that he called "my must list" for the Republican-controlled Congress. The list included: welfare reform that doesn't "punish children for their parents' mistakes"; tax cuts only if they're targeted to the middle class and are paid for by spending cuts; and preservation of the assault weapons ban and last year's crime bill provision to put more cops on the street.
Clinton specifically repeated that he will veto attempts to repeal the two anti-crime provisions and also talked about Republican bills that "go too far -- cuts in education and job training, undermining environmental protections . . . and penalties for going into court to assert your rights as a citizen."
It's an axiom of practical politics not to make a threat that you're not ready to carry through, lest you come off as a paper tiger. But the White House seems to have awakened to the fact that fellow Democrats, at least, want their party leader to start using his muscle.