There was a lot of brave talk among Senate Democrats as well as Republicans of slapping new economic sanctions on Iran even before the Obama administration completed its latest round of negotiations on restraining Tehran’s nuclear program.
But that was before President Obama renewed his threat to veto the legislation during his State of the Union address last week.
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“There are no guarantees negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Obama said in the speech. “But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and nine other influential Democrats backed down – telling Obama they would hold off until after a late-March deadline for the U.S. and Iran to complete work on the agreement.
Congressional leaders like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker of Tennessee may eventually come back with tough sanctions legislation if Obama’s negotiating team falls short. But for now, Obama has scored a tactical victory that buys State Department negotiators time.
Obama’s veto strategy has been paying other dividends in shaping the legislative agenda in the early going of the 114th Congress, much to the chagrin of many conservatives. Emboldened by his rising approval rating and divisions within the GOP, the president who vetoed only two minor bills up until now is threatening to veto at least five others.
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House Republicans threatened to use the Dept. of Homeland Security annual spending bill to block implementation of Obama’s executive order protecting nearly five million illegal immigrants from deportation. They still may move ahead on that plan to placate angry conservatives and Tea Party members. But after Obama’s veto threat, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other GOP members are exploring another way to take the president to court again to challenge the constitutionality of his executive action.
And prospects for passage of legislation to bypass Obama and force the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline project are fading fast: The House-passed legislation has been mired in a two-week debate on the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may eventually produce a bill that could overcome a presidential veto in the Senate, some observers say. But the legislation has been loaded with so many amendments to placate Republican and Democratic senators that Boehner may have trouble achieving final passage of the bill on the House floor – much less amassing the 290 votes he’d need to override a veto.
Aides to Republican lawmakers take strong exception to any suggestion Obama is having his way with his veto threat. “We are considering litigation in addition to legislative options like the DHS bill – not in place of them,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “I also don’t agree with your assessment on the Keystone pipeline or Iran.”
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Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, noted, “We had the same number of supporters/co-sponsors on Keystone before the veto threat as after. Menendez has flipped on Iran. And the battle lines on immigration were drawn long ago.”
Yet others see GOP reaction to Obama’s veto threats quite differently.
“The president is doing exactly what you’d expect him to do,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, an influential conservative lobbying group associated with the Heritage Foundation. "He’s waiting for Republicans to step up and challenge him on something. But if you look at the past few years, you are hard pressed to find a time when the Republican Party made a hard challenge to what the president is doing.”
Holler added, “There is a mystique around the presidency ... that if he draws a line in the sand there is no way of overcoming it. In many ways, Congress has played into this notion that the executive branch is the superior branch, not a coequal branch. If Senate Republicans were to draw a line in the sand right now, the president would laugh at them, because they haven’t shown a willingness to defend their turf.” Moreover, with many insiders warning of the dangers of the House GOP tampering with DHS’s operating budget amid global terrorist threats, “All the signs point to them not being willing to take on this fight right now,” Holler said.
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John Zogby, a prominent pollster and political analyst, said the president’s rising approval rating – approaching 50 percent right now – has given him added leverage. “I can’t say it any better than a millennial pop singer named Meghan Trainor,” said Zogby. “‘It’s all about the base.’ The president’s numbers are the only ones going up and it’s because he is getting increased support from liberals who see he is acting decisively and liberated by not having to run again.”
William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said, “Democrats, even dissenting Democrats, are less eager to confront the president of their own party than the Republicans are.”
“Because any meaningful confrontation between Congress and the president has to involve a veto override, if Democrats who may be dissenting are unwilling to join the opposition at this point, then the president can block most things he doesn’t want from happening.”
He added, “Then the question is, Will the Republicans choose to back off, knowing their efforts will fail from a legislative standpoint, even if they get stuff to the president’s desk. Or will they will choose to confront the president to make a point. I suspect it’s going to be some of each.”
After years of partisan gridlock, some GOP leaders said post-election they had high hopes for breakthroughs with the administration – but that Obama ipoisoned the well again by threatening to veto the Keystone Pipeline legislation just as lawmakers were being sworn in for a new term. Since then he’s threatened four other vetoes.
“The five bills that President Obama has already threatened to veto have received 106 Democrat votes overall,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), wrote in National Review Online. “These aren’t radical bills, and House Republicans aren’t trying to make a political statement… These are straightforward pieces of legislation that help middle-class families, small businesses, and veterans still struggling in this economy. They are bills that promote energy infrastructure, scale back job-killing regulations, and restore the constitutional separation of powers. Americans would prefer if they were made into law.”
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