By Justin Sink and Scott Wong - 01/12/15 06:00 AM EST
This could be the year of the veto for President Obama.
The White House and congressional Republicans are already in a pitched battle, less than a week into the 114th Congress.
Republicans are itching for a fight, eager to exploit their new control of the Senate to chip away at some of the president’s signature policy initiatives.
They believe a flurry of vetoes could bolster their argument that it’s Obama who is the real obstructionist in Washington — not congressional Republicans.
That dynamic has changed with Republicans in charge of both chambers. But it’s not certain the GOP will automatically benefit.
The White House is eager to paint the GOP as hopelessly stuck on old issues, such as repealing ObamaCare. The administration wants to contrast a GOP fighting battles from the past with a forward-looking president pitching a middle class agenda.
If good economic news continues to pile on, aides feel confident that voters will want to double down on the president’s agenda, rather than pull it back.
“The president has been clear he has zero interest in relitigating the partisan battles of years past, and will not allow any rollback of the progress we’ve made in areas like Wall Street reform, immigration, the Affordable Care Act or climate,” a White House official said.
The messaging struggle between those two perspectives is certain to dominate the early months of the new Congress — and whichever side emerges victorious will carry that momentum into the coming presidential election.
Already, Republicans are looking to paint the president as out of touch and unwilling to compromise — even on issues with broad public support.
Leadership aides said recent polling shows that public opinion favors the GOP on a number of issues, including Keystone. A Pew Research Center survey from November showed nearly 60 percent of Americans backed building the pipeline.
Republicans also had a 13-point advantage over Democrats when voters were asked which party they trust in handling the budget deficit, and a nine-point lead on the question of taxes.
“Literally as we were taking our oaths of office for this new Congress, the White House threatened to veto two of these bipartisan bills,” Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ohio) complained, referring to Keystone legislation and a separate bill that redefines full-time employees under ObamaCare as those working 40 hours per week, not 30 as has been the case up until now.
“And given the chance to start with a burst of bipartisan productivity, the president turned his back on the American people's priorities,” Boehner said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pounced on a third threatened veto — of changes to the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill — as well as a set of hundreds of new regulations to cast Obama as “making obstruction and red tape his top priority.”
The president can use his veto pen all he wants, but it will just make him more unpopular, said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the new chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
“The more vetoes he issues, the more the American people will see that he’s not on their side. He’s on the side of special interests that he’s trying to protect,” Flores told The Hill. “And I think over time it’s going to continue to hurt his popularity ratings.
“He’s already got a broken legacy — it’s just going to make him more broken.”
But Democrats also see advantages to holding strong on some of the president’s top priorities.
The president’s poll numbers hit their highest point in more than a year after a December during which the White House seemed to largely ignore the rebuke they were dealt at the ballot box.
The president barreled ahead with aggressive executive action on immigration, climate policy, and internet regulation, and was rewarded with a reenergized base and sense of momentum.
There’s also a sense that politically damaging vetoes may be offset by congressional Republicans’ plans to target initiatives like immigration, which poll well for Democrats. The president’s approval among Hispanic voters has jumped 10 points since taking his executive action on immigration, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
And administration officials said they were hopeful that neither the vetoes nor Republican efforts to repeal the president’s signature legislation would poison the well for bipartisan compromise.
“The president has been clear that there will be some actions by Congress that he won’t support, just like some in Congress will oppose steps that we take on our own,” the White House official said. “But those disagreements should not interfere with the many areas of bipartisan interest, like tax reform, trade, and infrastructure, where we can work together to get things done for the American people.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also said she thought the veto strategy could spur legislative collaboration, arguing that part of “working together is to make clear where we have common ground and where we do not.”
And for Pelosi, who has long wielded her control over House Democrats to extract concessions from the Republican leadership — which often must rely on crossover votes for must-pass legislation — sustaining vetoes give her another chance to demonstrate party unity.
The vetoes also give Obama leverage as he looks to strike larger deals on issues that could be a tough sell to many in the Republican Party — like additional funding for infrastructure, or the president’s bids to offer free preschool and community college tuition. While approving the Keystone pipeline might have been an initial show of comity, the veto retains the project as a bargaining chip for down the line.
Still, some Democrats questioned the White House’s decision to aggressively and immediately offer veto threats.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) complained that Obama did not reserve judgment on the Keystone bill until it went through the committee and amendment process.
“Never even gave it a chance,” Manchin told Fox News. “Now, that's just not the way you do legislation. It's not the way a democracy works. And it's not the way … the three branches of government should work.”
Even a traditional White House ally, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), admitted that the Keystone and ObamaCare veto threats were “unusual” as little time has been given to allow for debate.
“It is unusual for him to do it in advance but I think it's because these are not new issues and the gravity of both of these issues go directly to whether or not we are going to have a confrontational relationship with the Congress and White House,” Durbin said.