(Bloomberg) — Barack Obama has vetoed fewer bills than any U.S. president since James Garfield held the office for six months in 1881. With Republicans now in control of Congress, that’ll probably change.
A White House threat yesterday to veto legislation that would allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built through the U.S. sets up a showdown with Republican leaders, who have laid out an agenda that may also include attempts to dismantle the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and roll back environmental regulations and financial rules. Those measures are central to the legacy of the president, who has vetoed just two bills in six years.
“They’re going to send him some stuff they know ultimately he’ll veto,” said Miguel Rodriguez, a former director of the White House office of legislative affairs and now a partner at Bryan Cave LLP. “The message he’s going to send is, ‘Listen, I want to work together, but some things are just too far.’”
That could spark a risky confrontation for both the president and Republican lawmakers. Obama, who has accused Republicans of obstructing his programs since they took control of the U.S. House in 2011, could shoulder public blame for blocking bills that Congress passes. Republicans, who need to show voters they can govern, will face pressure to compromise with him, angering their base.
Obama, in an interview with National Public Radio released on Dec. 29, vowed to protect health and environmental legislation and rules.
“I haven’t used the veto pen very often since I’ve been in office,” he said. “Now I suspect there are going to be some times where I’ve got to pull that pen out. I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made in health care. I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water.”
First up will be Keystone. The House plans to vote on Jan. 9 on a measure to allow the pipeline to be built. While there’s enough support in both chambers to approve the project, overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. That will be especially hard to get in the Senate, where Republicans control 54 of the 100 seats.
Obama has hardened his tone, saying Keystone would create Canadian rather than American jobs as it crosses the U.S. to move oil from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday that if Congress passes a bill, “the president wouldn’t sign it.”
If Obama begins vetoing bills early in the new congressional session, then “it’s likely to degenerate into a political tug of war,” said Jon Kyl, who was the No. 2 Senate Republican before leaving the chamber in 2013. “Then it’s just a matter of which one is better at explaining which one is the reason for the gridlock.”
The Republicans will challenge the president to veto legislation because they’ll want to show the party’s base “that they are pursuing their goals by confronting Obama with things he does not like,” said John Woolley, a political science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The message they’ll deliver, he said, is: “‘Who’s the obstructionist now? Who’s not doing the work of the people?’”
The party may also seek to attach legislation to must-pass bills, such as spending measures, that Obama will be hard-pressed to reject.