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By Angela Greiling Keane, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — 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 Obama’s health-care law 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 number two 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.

Obama has issued so few vetoes because the Senate has been in Democratic hands since he became president in 2009, so the chamber hasn’t sent him measures they knew he’d reject. That’s changing now with the Republicans gaining control of the Senate in the November midterm elections for the first time since 2006.

Still, Senate rules often require 60 votes to advance major legislation, meaning Republicans will need to compromise with Democrats to hit that threshold.

The two bills Obama has vetoed came early in his administration — one of a 2009 spending bill and another of 2010 legislation he said would harm the recovery of the housing market and consumer protection for mortgage borrowers.

His two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both stepped up their vetoes when the opposition party gained control of Congress during their presidencies. Bush, a Republican, issued 12 vetoes, all but 11 of them in the two years after Democrats took power in Congress in 2006. All of Democrat Clinton’s 37 vetoes came after Republicans won Congress in 1994. Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881, issued no vetoes.

Four of Bush’s vetoes were overturned by Congress, as were two of Clinton’s.

Presidents are given ten days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto a bill. If a bill is unsigned after that time and Congress is in session, it becomes law. If those ten days pass and Congress adjourns, it’s considered a pocket veto.

Once a president vetoes a bill, Congress can override it during that same session with two-thirds of the votes in both the House and Senate.

Vote counting to ensure a veto can survive an override is important, said Ed Pagano, who was Obama’s Senate liaison and deputy assistant for legislative affairs.

“The president will not want to veto something that will be overridden,” said Pagano, who’s now a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. “That’s always a calculation.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Democrats need to be careful about trying to stand in the way of legislation, or they may alienate voters.

“Pick your battles wisely,” he said of the Democrats to reporters yesterday at the Capitol. “Try to rebrand your party because it was about you, not us. We didn’t win. You lost.”
___
Bloomberg reporter Kathleen Hunter in Washington contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Don Emmert

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