When the 114th Congress is sworn in, President Barack Obama will face a Republican majority in both chambers for the first time since taking office in 2009. If history is any guide, that will likely lead to a dusting off of the veto pen.
Six years into his presidency, Obama has vetoed only two bills: a moot continuing resolution and a foreclosure bill that would’ve made evictions easier. A Democrat-led Congress following Obama’s first election and divided chambers since 2011 have prevented bills unpalatable to the president from reaching his desk. Those protections, of course, will no longer exist come January when Republicans will have control of Congress.
Obama now faces a situation similar to the one President George W. Bush encountered when Democrats reclaimed both the House and Senate in 2007. During the first six years of his presidency, Bush vetoed one piece of legislation: a bill that would’ve expanded stem-cell research. After Republicans lost their congressional majority, he broke out the veto pen on 11 bills in his final two years.
Still, 12 vetoes for a two-term president is low by historical standards. Bush’s tally was the smallest since Andrew Jackson wracked up a dozen before the end of his second term in 1837, according to figures compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
More recently, President Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills from 1993 through 2001, but he didn’t take the pen out of its case until 1995 when Republicans took control of Congress.
Following the Republican midterm victories earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the rounds on cable news networks saying Obama was focusing on working alongside Republicans. He also reminded the nation of the power of the Oval Office.
“The president does have a pen on his desk, and I’m confident that he’ll be in a position where he’ll have to veto some legislation where Democrats and Republicans are not able to find some common ground,” Earnest told MSNBC.
The opportunity for Obama to veto legislation will depend on how often his Democratic allies in the Senate use a procedural maneuver Republicans have employed on numerous occasions in recent years: the filibuster.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who will become minority leader in the 114th Congress, said Democrats will behave differently than their colleagues across the aisle.
“I do not intend to run the Democratic caucus like the Republican caucus has been run in the minority,” Reid told reporters at the Capitol last week.
The Republicans will have a cozy majority in the House of at least 244 seats in a chamber that holds 435, but that falls short of the two-thirds required to override a presidential veto. In the 100-seat Senate, the 53 Republicans not only fall short of the amount needed to override a veto, they also don’t have the 60-vote majority needed to break a filibuster.
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s still unclear how often Senate Democrats will filibuster any Republican-backed legislation. He said that will depend on how partisan the bills are.
“Ninety percent of the time or more they know if a bill is veto bait or not,” Ornstein said. But predicting how many measures Obama will send back to Congress isn’t something that can be quantified at this point, he said. “It’s impossible to tell how many because it’s unclear how many bills are going to be sent to him.”
Two issues that could draw vetoes are immigration and net neutrality.
Obama is expected to take executive action on immigration reform before the end of the year. The move to influence immigration policies via executive order has drawn stern comments from Republican lawmakers such as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said the GOP intends to “fight the president tooth and nail” if such action is taken.
Last week Obama issued a statement in strong support of net neutrality, and those comment were also met with harsh criticism from Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Ornstein said Obama would likely strike down any legislation that aims to eliminate government oversight of the Internet.
Still, even a couple of bills on a handful of controversial issues may mean Obama falls short of Bush’s 12 vetoes. That would put the 44th president in the running for the fewest vetoes since James Madison.