Obama Can Put Away His Veto Pen
A strange amnesia has settled over much of the political world. I can't count the number of articles I've read saying that the new Republican Congress is going to pass all sorts of legislation that President Barack Obama will veto. The latest example: George Will's syndicated column urging the Republicans to pass several bills even if it results in "a blizzard of presidential vetoes."
There's no blizzard in the forecast. Senate Democrats will have the power to subject almost all legislation to filibuster (a word that does not appear in Will's column). Overcoming a filibuster takes 60 votes. So Republicans, who will probably end up with 54 seats, would have to win over Democrats to get legislation through the Senate to the president's desk. If they can do that, the legislation is unlikely to draw a veto.
That's because both parties these days have a lot of discipline. If the president opposes a bill, few Senate Democrats will support it -- which means that in the vast majority of cases a filibuster will keep him from having to veto it. If a lot of Senate Democrats support a bill, on the other hand, Obama won't want to place himself outside a bipartisan consensus by vetoing it.
Sometimes filibuster amnesia strikes pundits in the middle of a column. Molly Ball wrote a pre-election post for the Atlantic on what to expect from a Republican Senate. She mentioned that the Senate has been "requiring a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation." Two paragraphs later, she was speculating about how the Senate could send the president many bills that "would result in a speedy Obama veto." Again, that's not going to happen.
There are two ways to bypass the filibuster. One would be to simply vote to restrict or abolish it, which Senate Republicans are highly unlikely to do: They want to keep the procedure in case they end up back in the minority, they've made many statements in support of it that would be embarrassing to ignore, and Senator Mitch McConnell -- the likely new majority leader -- seems to have an almost romantic attachment to it. Republicans can also use the "reconciliation" process to pass legislation by a simple majority. But their opportunities to use this process are limited: It can only be done once or twice per session, and only on tax and spending measures.
So we can expect most Republican bills that pass the House to die from Senate filibusters, a small number to attract bipartisan support and become law, and an even smaller number to pass both houses and then be vetoed by Obama.
For many Republicans, a paucity of vetoes will be a disappointment. If they can't get their legislation signed, they at least want high-profile confrontations with the president over it. They shouldn't. Obama isn't going to be on the ballot again, but Senate Democrats are. If Republicans can devise attractive conservative legislation -- a big if, of course -- then they can force Democrats to take a position on it. If Democrats want to kill such reforms, they'd have to vote against them and vote to filibuster them. That's a change from the past six years, when Democrats had the power to refuse to hold votes on such legislation.
This is how Republicans should be thinking about the next two years. They should pass worthwhile bipartisan legislation in the few areas where it's possible. In the many areas where it isn't, they should set an agenda even though Senate Democrats will block most of it. Getting that agenda into law will require Republicans to follow up this week's electoral success with another in 2016 -- just as Democrats needed the landslides of 2006 and 2008 to be able to govern. The main Republican task now should be to build a new conservative governing majority.
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Ramesh Ponnuru at firstname.lastname@example.org
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