President Obama is about to get his first veto opportunity of the new Congress. A bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline project will be on his desk soon. He has promised to veto it, and that's unusual. In his first six years in office, Obama issued just two vetoes — the fewest of any president going all the way back to James Garfield, and Garfield only served 199 days in office! But with the Republican takeover of both chambers of Congress, that will change. Here are four reasons why:
1. Nothing left to lose: the Janis Joplin doctrine.
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, Joplin sang. The thing that holds a president back from taking executive action is very often that members of Congress of his own party don't want him to trample on their prerogatives. When the president has an opposition party controlling Congress, he doesn't have to worry about that. And he's no longer concerned with the political fate of red-state, pro-Keystone Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu or Sen. Mark Begich — they both lost their seats in November. So he's free to stand with the environmentalist base of his party.
2. A divided government.
Instead of a divided Congress, where a Democratic Senate kept almost anything from coming to the president's desk, we now have divided government. A Republican Congress will actually be passing things and sending them to President Obama to sign or veto.
3. The desire to draw a bright line.
In the past, presidents often used vetoes as a negotiating tool — to shape legislation. Bill Clinton, who famously said "I was not elected to produce a pile of vetoes," vetoed plenty of bills, including welfare reform twice before he got a version he was willing to sign. That may be the case with some future Obama vetoes, but right now the dynamics between Congress and President Obama are so contentious that neither side is looking for a negotiation. Both Congress, by passing bills it knows the president will veto, and the president, by vetoing them, are making a political statement.
4. Protecting the president's legacy and authority.
According to political scientists who study this, historically, 90 percent of veto threats are issued privately, behind the scenes. Obama appears to be breaking with that tradition. He has issued nine veto threats so far — in public. Most are to defend his legacy initiatives: Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, immigration action. But several threatened vetoes are to preserve the authority of the executive. He says he'll veto the Keystone XL bill because it's up to the State Department, not Congress, to approve cross-border pipelines. He has also promised to veto two bills about the Iran nuclear deal because they infringe on the president's ability to conduct diplomacy.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're nearing the point where President Obama may really use the veto pen, as he's called it.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The president has issued just two vetoes since taking office. No president has vetoed so few bills since James Garfield, who was in office for less than a year.
INSKEEP: President Obama's total may soon increase because the Keystone pipeline bill is moving toward his desk. The Senate voted yesterday to require extending the pipeline 62-36. The president said he will veto that plan to force his hand on that energy project.
MONTAGNE: For the record, 62 votes in the Senate is enough to overcome a filibuster and reach the president. But it is short of the two-thirds majority required to override a veto.
INSKEEP: With Republicans controlling all of Congress, more vetoes may be coming. Here's NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama spent his first term and a half making very few veto threats and even fewer actual vetoes. But as he warned in his State of the Union address, that will no longer be the case.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street. We're refighting past battles on immigration when we've got to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.
LIASSON: And those aren't the only things. They aren't even going to be the first. That dubious distinction will apparently go to the Keystone pipeline. All told, Obama has issued nine veto threats, a modern record for the start of a congressional session. There are good reasons why it's now veto season at the White House. Instead of a divided Congress, where a Democratic Senate kept almost anything undesired from reaching the president's desk, we now have divided government. And a Republican Congress will be passing things. But if Congress is freer, so is the president, says former Clinton White House aide Michael Waldman.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: When the president has an opposition party controlling Congress, it's sort of - freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. You know, it's the Janis Joplin doctrine.
LIASSON: Now the president doesn't have to worry about the political fate of pro-Keystone Democrats in red states, like senators Mary Landrieu or Mark Begich. They both lost their seats in November, so he's free to stand with the environmentalist base of his party. Still, the White House says it's not threatening a veto over the merits of the pipeline itself. Here's spokesman Eric Schultz.
ERIC SCHULTZ: This Keystone project is undergoing review at the State Department. We are opposed to any legislative maneuver that would circumvent that process.
LIASSON: So it's about the process. It is not about the Keystone pipeline.
SCHULTZ: Again, we are opposed to any legislative maneuver that would circumvent a process that's been in place for decades.
LIASSON: The State Department has long had the authority to approve cross-border pipelines, like the Canadian Keystone XL project. But after six years of review, the State Department hasn't made a final recommendation. The president is described as leaning against Keystone, but his public comments on the project have been less than clear. Here's what he said in the State of the Union.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: Twenty-first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure, modern ports and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.
LIASSON: Does that mean he thinks Keystone is not important enough to build or not important enough to block? That's what makes this first Obama veto threat of the new Congress so unusual. In the past, presidents used vetoes not just to block legislation, but as a negotiating tool to force changes. Bill Clinton, for instance, vetoed welfare reform twice before he got a version he was willing to sign. But that's not what's happening now, says political scientist Jennifer Selin.
JENNIFER SELIN: I think that here, the dynamics between Congress and President Obama right now are just so contentious that I don't think we're thinking about shaping legislation. I think it's more a question of actually making a statement to the public.
LIASSON: And, says Selin, the statements the president and Congress are making in this veto fight are completely different. In Congress, the Keystone debate is all about the merits of the pipeline itself, whether it helps the economy, hurts the environment, creates jobs. But at the White House...
SELIN: President Obama's really talking about something different. And I think that boils down to this idea of executive power.
LIASSON: Republicans say the flood of veto threats show the president is not serious about bipartisanship. Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, who issued plenty of vetoes himself, says President Obama needs to be careful not to diminish the power of the veto threat by issuing so many of them so publicly himself.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: They're not leaving themselves any wiggle room. You always need to leave yourself a side door or a back door. But by saying firmly the president will veto means, I'm not negotiating.
LIASSON: So the big threat approach might make sense so long as the vetoes are meant to send a political message. But if they're meant to help shape legislation, they're not as likely to be effective. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.