Obama prepares for divisive veto

President Obama is just days away from issuing the biggest veto of his tenure, with Republicans poised to send him legislation that would authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Obama’s veto — just the third of his presidency and the first since 2010 — is expected to come with little fanfare, with even opponents of the pipeline arguing the White House should avoid further angering Democrats and unions who want Keystone to be built.

"We just want to see it get it rejected. Our work doesn't end with the veto, we need to make sure votes are there to sustain that veto," said Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club's legislative director.

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Republicans are eagerly awaiting Obama’s stroke of the pen, believing every veto he makes will help them make the case that job-creating legislation is being blocked by a president of “no.”

"This is the first piece of legislation on his desk . . . and he will have to choose between hard working Americans and taxpayers or environmental extremists,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a staunch Keystone supporter.

"We will keep our word to the American people, and we are going to keep sending bills to his desk," he added.

Republicans made Keystone their priority No. 1 after winning control of Congress in November, charging out of the gates with legislation that would override the administration’s review process and approve the $8 billion project.

Work on the Keystone bill took nearly a month in the Senate, ending last week with a 62-36 vote that drew the support of nine Democrats.

The House is poised to approve the bill this week and ship it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where it is likely to meet a swift demise.

"The president has been pretty clear that he does not think circumventing a well-established process for evaluating these projects is the right thing for Congress," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last month.

The rejection of the Keystone bill will mark the beginning of veto wars between Obama and the GOP, with both sides hoping to rally public support as showdowns over the debt ceiling and the budget approach later this year.

The White House has touted Obama’s power to block legislation repeatedly since Republicans won the House and Senate, issuing eight veto threats in January alone — the most ever for the start of a new Congress.

“He is playing the strong hand here,” said Jim Manley a Democratic strategist, and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Vetoing Keystone, Manley said, “is a matter of relevance and to show he has influence in the process.”

For Obama, shooting down Republican legislation serves multiple goals, allowing him to project strength, rally the liberal base and draw contrasts that could help Democrats in the 2016 elections.

"I do think he wants to put his flag in the ground and demonstrate that his veto pen has a bunch of ink in it, and he will use it," Pierce said.

Still, if Obama vetoes too many bills, especially ones with Democratic support, Republicans could have success portraying him as partisan and unwilling to negotiate.

“One veto doesn’t make him obstructionist,” said James Thurber, a professor of government at American University “Now maybe after 3, 4, 5 vetoes, then they could start painting him that way.”

One question facing the White House is how to carry out the vetoes for maximum political advantage.

While the Keystone refusal is likely to happen behind closed doors, the White House may choose to cast aside other Republican bills in the spotlight’s glare.

If Obama wants to make his vetoes a media event, he could employ the playbook of former President Bill Clinton, who used them to great effect when he was facing a Republican Congress in his second term.

In 1999, Clinton brought in a brass band for a jovial Rose Garden ceremony where he vetoed a Republican bill that would have provided a $792 billion tax cut.

Former President George W. Bush also had a memorable veto moment in 2006, when Democrats sent him legislation that would have eased restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

In a ceremony in the East Room, Bush stood in front of so-called "snowflake" families that had adopted embryos that would have otherwise been discarded by fertility clinics, and then used them to have children. After delivering his remarks, Bush posed for pictures with the families.

But not all vetoes have been performed so publicly.

When Clinton vetoed the legislation banning partial birth abortions, he did so in a private ceremony in the Oval Office. He met with women who had undergone the procedure on the advice of their doctors because their health was in danger.

Often presidents have vetoed bills simply by issuing a written statement outlining their objections.

That’s the route Obama is likely to take on Keystone, given how deeply the legislation divides his own party.

Once Obama’s veto comes down, it’s unclear whether Republicans will try to override him, given that they are short of the two-thirds majorities that would be needed.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), one of the authors of the Senate Keystone bill, said he’s confident that Obama’s move will only help Republicans build their case for the oil sands project.

"He's going the wrong direction. The American people made it very clear in the election that they want the administration to work with Congress,” Hoeven said.

For Keystone opponents, the focus isn't on Obama’s veto — it's on what comes next.

The activist group 350.org has been staging protests to pressure Obama into rejecting the project once when the results of an interagency review process, now in the hands of Secretary of State John Kerry, reach the White House.

“For us the veto isn't the end all. It is step one. What we are far more interested in is, moving past that, and getting him to the place where he is moving toward a rejection," said Karthik Ganapathy, communications director for 350.

Green groups said they are planning to send more letters to the White House, complete with signatures from high-profile figures, to ensure that Obama thinks hard about how approving Keystone could affect his climate change legacy.

"We aren't just going to go quietly into the night," Ganapathy said.

Justin Sink contributed.