President Barack Obama knows how to get under Republicans' skin (in so many ways, but in this case we're talking about going around Congress to get things done), and he ended 2014 with a bang: A climate deal with China. Executive action on immigration. A move to normalize relations with Cuba.
As he makes his New Year's resolutions, the liberated, second-term, post-midterm president's list may well include some new maneuvers to enrage the opposition party. Here are five ways he could do it again in 2015.
You already know more than you ever thought you would about oil-sands crude, right? TransCanada Corp. wants to complete an $8 billion, 1,179-mile pipeline starting in the Canadian province of Alberta and running 830,000 barrels of oil per day through Nebraska into a network to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. While Obama cares about the Keystone XL project in the context of foreign policy and maintaining good relations with neighbor, ally and trading partner Canada, in 2012 he blocked it because of concerns in Nebraska and kicked it to the State Department for more study.
Now, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he wants to start the new Congress by taking up a bill by Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, to approve Keystone under congressional authority. Environmentalists and major Democratic donor Tom Steyer are fighting the project, saying it will worsen global warming and could trigger toxic spills. Republicans largely back the project, saying it can create jobs and reduce gas prices. Opponents say such benefits are greatly overstated or downright irrelevant, given how low gas prices have fallen lately.
Obama was coy throughout the midterms about which way he'll go, maintaining that it was in the State Department's hands and that he would weigh the pros and cons. But he doesn't want Congress to tell him what to do. And in recent weeks, he's hinted strongly that he's turned against Keystone XL. He told comedian Stephen Colbert that while it would be good for Canada, “it's not going to push down gas prices here in the United States,” and that any economic benefit must be weighed against contributing to the warming of the earth, “which could be disastrous.” In his year-end news conference, the president said that “it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers.” Asked whether he was issuing a veto threat, he demurred. “I'll see what they do,” he said of Republicans in Congress. “We'll take that up in the new year.”
Campaign finance reform
So-called dark-money nonprofits, such as those affiliated with the Koch brothers, could find it much harder to muck around in elections. Under current practices, up to half of these groups' money can be spent on politics. Changes to the Internal Revenue Service regulations governing 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations could shrink the percentage they can devote to election activities such as advertising. Overall, the aim would be to make it more difficult for any nonprofit group to engage in campaign politics; in practice, it would likely be perceived as a disproportionate handicap of conservative donor-backed organizations. These are among the reforms that the administration, regulatory groups or Congress could take on if so inclined (which Congress probably is not).
Think power plants and methane.
Last year, Obama proposed power-plant standards Republicans oppose to reduce carbon dioxide by 26 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. The standards are set to be issued in June, and then states will have another year to adopt their own plans to carry the standards out. McConnell will make it a top priority to try to stop Obama, either by blocking funding to carry out the policy or by changing provisions of the Clean Air Act, said David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council climate and clean air program. “It will be fought over by the Republicans all through the year,” he said. “There will be lots of lawsuits and so on. But the administration's very committed to this.”
There's another front on which the administration is expected to move early in the new year: setting standards to curb the leakage of methane, or natural gas. Raw methane emitted into the air is 36 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, Doniger said, so stopping the leakage of methane at well pads, processing plants and pipelines could have a big impact. The administration had promised a proposal by the end of 2014 but it's getting pushed to 2015. “It's the biggest opportunity to cut climate pollution that they haven't already seized,” he said. Setting standards would likely translate to increased inspections and mandatory repairs.
We're not talking Bill Clinton-Marc Rich kinds of pardons. We're talking about non-violent prisoners incarcerated on drug charges and other such offenses.
This is a social-justice issue—and to a large degree, a racial-justice issue—for Obama. He was talking about it long before Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Mo., and other incidents renewed a debate about criminal justice, race, police abuses and sentencing. In late December, Obama granted clemency to 20 people, most of whom had been locked up on drug charges. Administration officials signaled months earlier that the scope of what Obama and his attorney general are considering could ultimately affect hundreds or thousands of incarcerated Americans.
Federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, Obama's nominee to succeed outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, has a record of experience with cases involving police and the treatment of minorities, including her work on the team prosecuting New York City police officers accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant. (One officer pleaded guilty; another officer's conviction was overturned on appeal.) If confirmed, Lynch will be the first black female U.S. attorney general.
Nuclear deal with Iran
The P5+1—the U.S., along with China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K.—are seeking limits to Iran's nuclear program through negotiations in exchange for the easing of sanctions. Negotiators didn't meet a Nov. 24 deadline and agreed to a seven-month extension. While Iran insists its interest lies in energy and other civilian uses, the U.S. and allies suspect Iran of trying to get an atomic bomb. Obama has expressed skepticism of the deal's prospects but said that it's worth trying.
Many congressional Republicans—and some Democrats—say Iran can't be trusted and want to go in the opposite direction, pushing for more sanctions. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and possible presidential candidate, said on Fox News in mid-December that “Iran was struggling under sanctions. They were on the point of collapse, and Obama, just like he's doing with Cuba, stepped in with a lifeline, relaxed sanctions, and is in the process of trying to negotiate a very, very bad deal.” Conservative media outlets also are gearing up in opposition to Obama's approach. And a former U.S. Marine being held prisoner by Iranian authorities has expressed concerns that his fate is becoming tied to the nuclear negotiations.
But in an interview in November with ABC News, Obama sounded a note of optimism. While gaps between the countries are “still significant,” he said, he was “confident that if we reach a deal that is verifiable and ensures that Iran does not have breakout capacity, that not only can I persuade Congress, but I can persuade the American people that it's the right thing to do.”