With the quick swipe of a pen on the way from one meeting to another, President Obama unceremoniously opened a fourth chapter of his presidency Tuesday — the veto era.
Obama’s rejection of a bill that would have ordered approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline came with minimal fanfare. The White House did not even publicly release word of the decision, which was widely anticipated, until after Senate officials announced they had received the veto message.
Nonetheless, the moment marked a milestone. Until Tuesday, Obama had vetoed only two bills in more than six years. Already this year, the White House has issued more than a dozen veto threats.
Obama’s first two years were built around legislative victories. The next two featured an ultimately futile effort by the president and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to negotiate a “grand bargain” on spending and taxes. In the last two years, the White House pushed new programs through aggressive executive actions in areas including immigration and global warming.
But the final two years of Obama’s tenure will almost certainly be dominated by defense as he fends off Republican efforts to undo his policies.
Aides to the president insisted that an era of vetoes wasn’t their preference. Too many White House rejections of legislation approved by the House and Senate could dismay voters, they say.
“When there’s dysfunction, we all pay the price,” said one aide, speaking anonymously in accordance with White House policy.
At the same time, Obama is happy to draw “bright lines” around the policies he cares most about, the aide acknowledged. Nothing draws those lines quite as brightly as a veto pen.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate would hold a vote no later than March 3 in an attempt to override the veto. But that effort is almost certain to fail: The bill passed both houses of Congress with less than the two-thirds vote needed for an override.
“This veto doesn’t end the debate,” McConnell said. “Americans should know that the new Congress won’t stop pursuing good ideas, including this one.”
Boehner called Obama’s veto a “national embarrassment.”
Vetoes were once common. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, vetoed 635 pieces of legislation, an average of more than 50 a year, despite having a Democratic-controlled Congress throughout his tenure.
In recent years, however, as Congress has come more and more to resemble a parliamentary body with strict party discipline, fewer bills opposed by a president emerge, and vetoes have become rare. President Clinton rejected 37 pieces of legislation in eight years, President George W. Bush just 12.
With 44 votes in the Senate, Democrats will continue to be able to kill most Republican-backed bills with filibusters, limiting the number of vetoes Obama may have to cast. The Keystone legislation was the relatively rare example that peeled off enough Democratic support to reach a 60-vote threshold to pass the Senate.
In some other cases, the president, in collaboration with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), may decide that he would prefer to have the Senate pass a measure so he can make the show — and the political point — of vetoing it, said Jim Manley, a former longtime Reid advisor.
Senate Democrats will probably be happy to oblige.
“I don’t believe that the caucus is going to want to be the death knell for everything,” Manley said. “Every once in a while they’re going to send stuff down to the president, just so he can use the veto and draw the contrast.”
Another big constraint on the number of vetoes is the inability, at least so far, of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to agree on new bills to send the president’s way.
Many Republicans would like to take a run at rewriting parts of the healthcare law, for example, but disagreements within their caucus have blocked that.
Meanwhile, with the 2016 presidential contest taking shape and Republicans looking to shore up their congressional majorities, party leaders are evaluating whether a game of veto-volley with the White House would help or hurt them.
“They have to be cautious about setting the president up for a message victory,” said Patrick Griffin, former legislative liaison for President Clinton and now academic director of the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute at American University.
“If the president frames the message successfully the way he wants to, the Republicans are not going to just keep putting their fingers in the fan.”
Both sides were happy to make Keystone the first measure through the process. The project is designed to move oil from the tar sands deposits under Canada’s prairies more than 1,000 miles south to refineries along the Gulf Coast. It stirs passions on both sides but is not a leading issue with large numbers of voters.
“It’s a test case,” Griffin said. “It’s about whether the public thinks his reasoning is better than their reasoning.”
Republicans said they passed the bill to fulfill their commitment to pursue job-creating policies. In a video released Monday, Boehner said it would create up to 42,000 direct jobs.
Administration officials say most of the jobs the project would create are temporary, related to construction, and the number of permanent jobs involved is minuscule. At the same time, they say the project could have serious negative environmental consequences, mostly by contributing to global warming.
This month, the Environmental Protection Agency reported to the State Department, which continues to review the pipeline, that Keystone would add as much carbon dioxide to the air each year as 6 million passenger vehicles.
Obama has said previously that the project should be approved only if it didn’t significantly worsen carbon emissions, the leading cause of global warming.