With Obama's second veto threat, is bipartisanship with Congress already over?

President Obama indicated Wednesday he’d veto a tweak to the Affordable Care Act that would change the law’s definition of the workweek from 30 to 40 hours. This follows the president’s veto threat Tuesday on the Keystone pipeline.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., with Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas (r.) and Sen. John Barrasso (l.) talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 7, following their first GOP policy meeting since Congress reconvened yesterday.

Two veto threats in two days. Is President Obama killing the opportunity for bipartisanship in Congress before new members even have a chance to find the basement snack shops?

Democrats in the Senate who have been working on bipartisan bills to approve the Keystone oil pipeline and tweak the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the House versions of which are Mr. Obama’s two veto targets – are particularly frustrated by the threats.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, a co-sponsor of Keystone legislation in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in both houses, where these two issues are in active play this week, say the president is ignoring the wishes of Americans. They argue that the public supports the efforts and also wants the White House and Congress to work together.

“The president has failed his first big test when it comes to working with the Congress for the American people,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the GOP Senate leadership.

Obama is making it quite clear that he won’t dine on what he sees as warmed-over GOP campaign promises disguised as bipartisan bills. At the same time, Republicans are hoping to finally get some of their issues to the president’s desk, and if he vetoes them, to use that as 2016 campaign fodder.

Expect much more of this, now that former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada no longer has the power to shield Obama from bills he doesn’t like.

“The president is laying down the marker on what he’s willing to sign and what he’s not,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s a reminder we’re in a period of divided government and we don’t legislate just by tossing things down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

What Obama wants to see, she says, is “real bipartisan legislation where you have a core of both parties” backing it.

Keystone has six Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, though other Democrats sharply decry it on environmental grounds. Also, a Senate bill that would change the definition of the workweek from 30 to 40 hours under the ACA has two Democratic co-sponsors. The change is meant to discourage employers from cutting hours to avoid the employer health mandate.

The House is expected to pass similar versions of both measures this week.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the minority whip, acknowledged Wednesday that it’s “unusual” for the president to issue veto threats at this early stage – before legislation has even hit the Senate floor. But, he added, “these are not new issues.”

The senator said he would welcome a debate on the ACA’s workweek – but not if it’s done in the context of “the first nail in the coffin” for the ACA.

“We need to talk this through and if we do it in a constructive, positive way, then I think the president would be willing to sit down,” Senator Durbin said.

One reason the White House objects to the workweek change: It would add to the deficit, administration officials say. But the clutch of moderate Democrats working on these bills believes it is being constructive.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) of Indiana, who cosponsored the 40-hour-workweek bill with Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, says the bill would save workers from having their hours cut and then having to find another part-time job to compensate.

“I’m hoping he’ll reconsider,” he says of Obama. The bill “actually helps our families.”

The risk for the president, of course, is that his early veto threats make him look like he’s backing away from GOP overtures on bipartisanship.

“Veto threats on Day 1 and 2 of a new Congress play right into Republican hands,” Ms. Binder says.

She doubts, though, that the moves will hurt the chances for other bipartisan agreements in Congress. If lawmakers really want to legislate on taxes or trade, “I don’t think they’d let veto threats on other issues get in the way.”

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