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What issues roil Washington? Veto threats are clues

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has a telling hit list.

The veto threats that he’s issued over the last three weeks are a microcosm of American politics, representing the roiling issues of the day, the power struggle playing out between Congress and the White House, and even the pique between the president and GOP congressional leaders.

Obama, who vetoed just two minor bills over the past six years, has been tossing out veto threats like confetti since Republicans took full control of Congress.

In addition to delivering eight formal veto notices on specific bills under consideration, the president has sounded broader warnings that he’ll block legislative efforts that jeopardize his health care law, roll back rules governing Wall Street, reverse his immigration actions or impose new sanctions on Iran.

There’s a little bit of everything in Obama’s veto threats: the culture wars (abortion), energy policy (Keystone XL oil pipeline), social matters (Obamacare), foreign policy (Iran), economic angst (financial regulation), even wonky details of governance (rule-making processes).

The list lays bare two competing visions of the proper role of government.

And while there’s plenty of political strategy behind what Obama has chosen to single out for a potential veto, he’s also “really expressing what his values are and what he believes in,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Likewise, Thurber says, for all the political positioning going on among congressional Republicans, they’ve advanced any number of bills in the face of certain veto because they believe in them.

“It’s not just a chess game,” says Thurber.

Game or not, the odds of winning are in Obama’s favor. Presidents have prevailed on 96 percent of their more than 2,500 vetoes over the years, with Congress able to muster the votes to override the presidents’ objections just 4 percent of the time.

Of all the legislation subject to an Obama veto threat, a bipartisan effort to impose new sanctions on Iran to discourage its nuclear program may have the best chance of mustering the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto. A vote on that could come as early as next month.

Many of the other bills don’t stand a chance. And Republicans know that going in.

Still, it’s smart for Republicans to put forward their ideas to show a clear contrast with the president, says Dan Holler, communications director for the conservative Heritage Action for America. Holler said it’s also important to understand that any major legislation that has a chance of being enacted is going to be negotiated with the White House behind the scenes.

“By necessity that will be quiet,” says Holler, “because pretty much every single member of the Republican Party ran against Obama and everything he’s done over the past six years. Their constituents would understandably be upset if they are working hand in glove with the administration.”

Both sides appear to be “frontloading” their agendas with confrontational matters to help set the stage for the 2016 elections, with the real work to find compromises to come later, says William Galston, a former Clinton administration official.

“The question, then, is what does Phase 2 look like?” says Galston. After Obama vetoes GOP proposals and the Republicans fail to override him, “that’s when the 2015 game begins.”

Obama might want to pay more attention to timing if he wants to improve his working relations with congressional leaders.

His first two veto threats were issued while the new Congress still was being sworn in, prompting plenty of grousing from Republicans.

“He could have waited a few hours,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “Maybe he could have waited a few days. We were taking our oath of office when they were issuing veto threats. Come on.”



Hed: The ever-growing list of Obama veto threats

If these bills reach his desk, President Barack Obama has threatened to veto them:

• Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Would ban most abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

• No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. Would ban taxpayer funding for abortion, a prohibition that is already largely in effect.

• Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act. Would accelerate the approval of natural gas pipeline projects by requiring a decision on applications within 12 months.

• Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Amendments would overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration and expose hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants to deportation.

• Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015. Would establish tougher requirements for writing federal regulations, which critics say would create confusion and delays.

• Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act. Would weaken requirements under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, which put banks and Wall Street under the most sweeping rules since the Great Depression.

• Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Would approve construction of a long-stalled oil pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

• Save American Workers Act of 2015. Would narrow the definition of fulltime workers who must be offered employer-provided health insurance from those working at least 30 hours weekly to those with a 40-hour minimum.

Besides those specific bills, Obama has also threatened to veto any bill that places new sanctions against Iran, saying they would threaten ongoing negotiations over its nuclear program.