Wielding the weapon of his pen, President Barack Obama this week is expected to formally reject a Republican attempt to force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But in stopping the transit of petroleum from the forests of Alberta to the Gulf Coast, Obama will be opening the veto era of his presidency.
The expected Keystone veto, the third and most significant of Obama’s six years in office, probably would be followed by presidential vetoes of bills that could emerge to make changes in the Affordable Care Act, impose new sanctions on Iran and roll back child nutrition standards, among others.
For Obama, his Cross Townsend black rollerball pen will become an extension of his second-term strategy to act alone in the face of Republican opposition and safeguard his legislative record.
“It’s a new period of his administration,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “He will use the veto to protect his past record and not allow things he disagrees with to go forward.”
Rep. David E. Price, a North Carolina Democrat, said Obama had little choice: “I don’t think, in this divided government, there’s much doubt he will have to use it.”
But to Republicans who want to use their congressional majority to reverse the president’s regulatory agenda and block his executive actions, vetoes would be prime examples of what they see as Obama’s arrogance.
“There’s a lot we can get done together if the president puts his famous pen to use signing bills rather than vetoing legislation his liberal allies don’t like,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader.
If Obama takes the veto path in his last two years in office, he could easily surpass the 12 vetoes of his immediate predecessor, President George W. Bush. He will not come close to the 635 vetoes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued during his 12 years in office or the 414 by President Grover Cleveland during his first term. But Obama might match the 37 by President Bill Clinton or the 44 by President George H.W. Bush.
The statistics reflect how rare the veto has become in the modern presidency. Although the veto was once an accepted step in back-and-forth negotiations between presidents and lawmakers, historians say the increased partisanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill have made it more of a last-ditch measure.
Some lawmakers say partisanship could hold down Obama’s veto count by preventing Republican-sponsored legislation from reaching the president’s desk in the first place.
Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate, and most legislation requires 60 votes to avoid a filibuster that would block passage. That means the Democratic minority led by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada can still stop Republican efforts to pass legislation if Senate Democrats hold together.
As an example, Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, noted that Senate Democrats were holding up Republican efforts to pass a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security because it includes provisions that would undermine Obama’s executive actions shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. That has so far spared the president from having to veto the Republican legislation.
“Based on what we’ve seen so far, Democrats in the Senate are for the most part wanting to protect him on his priorities,” Portman said.
Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said presidents must always be mindful of the fact that Congress can override a president’s veto with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. An overridden veto is an indication of weakness that presidents try to avoid, which gives Obama’s Democratic allies in the Senate another incentive to block legislation before it gets to him.
Still, members of both parties are bracing for a future in which Republicans muscle through legislation that the president will reject. Lawmakers in both parties have proposed legislation to sanction Iran, despite warnings by Obama that such a move could harm ongoing nuclear negotiations. Senators have already drafted a bill to eliminate the medical devices tax, a highly contested part of Obama’s health law. Last year, House Republicans pushed to roll back child nutrition standards that were backed by first lady Michelle Obama.
Republicans could well start by pushing through budget measures, some of which require only 51 votes in the Senate and cannot be blocked by Democrats, and then dare Obama to veto them.
McConnell has described another prospect in which Republicans would move to pass individual appropriations bills to provide funding for the different agencies of government, rather than passing one overall bill to fund the government. Republicans would attach to each of the bills “riders” — contested provisions likely to be offensive to Obama — that would be likely to lead the president to veto the bill.
Specifically, McConnell has vowed to attach riders to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual budget bill that would stop the enactment of two major climate change regulations.
Jody Freeman, director of Harvard’s environmental law program and a former senior counselor to the president, said there was no doubt Obama would veto such an effort if Republicans got it through Congress.
The Keystone bill, which White House officials have promised the president will veto, passed on Feb. 11, but Republicans said they would not officially deliver it to Obama’s desk until this week, when they were back from a break. Their strategy is to have Obama reject the bill when they are in session, giving them the opportunity to rally and denounce the president on the floors of the Senate and House.
Congressional aides said they expected Obama would get the bill on Monday, and White House officials said the president would veto it soon after.
A veto would not mean the end of the Keystone project; rather, it would allow Obama to retain the authority to make a final decision on whether to approve it.
Price said even though Democrats had voted for the Keystone bill, they would rally behind Obama’s veto to make sure Congress did not override it.
“It’s not just about the substance of the decision,” Price said. “It’s about the blatant challenge of the president’s authority. That’s why the veto will be upheld.”
Republicans and conservative advocacy groups said they intended to denounce the veto of the bill as a rejection of a project that has bipartisan support among most Americans.
The conservative super PAC Americans for Prosperity, which is partly funded by the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, has already launched a media campaign criticizing the expected veto.