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PRESIDENT BUSH has vetoed a dozen bills passed by Congress since he took office 17 months ago. Ten of those vetoes came in his first year. Already observers have taken note of his willingness to employ this formidable weapon of presidents in their struggle over issues with Congress.

But the contrasts drawn between Bush's 10 first-year vetoes and the two each cast by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their first years in office don't tell the whole story.

Aside from personal strategic preferences, there were differences in the political conditions.

Vetoes, signaling differences between a president and Congress, frequently result from either competing ideologies or political affiliations. Or both.

So it was with Bush, Reagan and Carter in their first years in office. Republican Bush confronted a Congress in which Democratic majorities controlled both the House and Senate. So Democrats could write laws to which a Republican president might well object.

But Reagan, also a Republican, was working with a divided Congress: friendly Republicans controlled the Senate. Chances were less would get through both houses that he would wish to veto.

In Carter's first year, friendly Democrats controlled both House and Senate.

Obviously, Reagan and Carter dealt with Congresses more amenable to their political preferences.

Carter, particularly, had this advantage. He could work with other Democrats on Capitol Hill to block legislation he didn't like before it ever reached the point where a veto would have been, in his judgment, required.

For presidents who served eight years, the all-time veto champion was Buffalo's Grover Cleveland with 414 (by contrast, Ronald Reagan issued 78 vetoes during a similar period; Dwight Eisenhower, 181).

FDR, who served the longest time as president (12 years), eclipsed that with 635.

It's worth emphasizing that the executive veto is a perfectly legitimate weapon for presidents to use in trying to shape legislative results. It was employed very sparingly until after the Civil War. But the Constitution, ratified by the states in 1789, contained a veto provision. To overcome a veto, two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate must oppose the president.

History shows that is difficult. Congress overrode FDR nine times. Ditto for Reagan. Gerald Ford, a Republican facing a Democratic Congress, vetoed 66 bills in 30 months in office. He was overridden a dozen times.

Richard Nixon, another Republican facing a Democratic Congress, issued 43 vetoes in five years and lost on five.

Thus, Congress, even when controlled by the political party of which a president is not a member, finds it difficult to kill a chief executive's vetoes. It takes only a bare majority for Congress to pass a bill in the first place, but a super majority to kill a veto.

History plainly demonstrates that in the game of legislative-executive power, the executive veto offers too effective a tool for any president to discard it for very long.

By every indication, Bush certainly won't.

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