US President Barack Obama speaks after t

President Barack Obama is pictured. | Getty

President opposes first legislative move by GOP-controlled Congress.
By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Burgess Everett
1/6/15 8:51 PM EST

President Barack Obama’s Keystone veto threat Tuesday was the opening gambit in his fight with the new Republican majorities in Congress looking to derail his post-midterm momentum.

Worried White House aides spent the last few weeks working behind the scenes to make sure they had the votes to sustain a veto, rounding up enough Democrats willing to stand behind their lame-duck president and prevent him from being humiliated by an override.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s waiting only for the initial text of the bill approving the massive oil pipeline reflected confidence that they’d won this round.

A veto would come with political complications for Obama. Republicans are already pointing to the threat as more evidence of their narrative that he’s a dictatorial president who refuses to listen, even on an issue that has enormous support in public opinion polls. Supportive Democrats, though, say they’re eager to see the president dig in and concentrate more on fighting than compromising.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) setting Keystone as the first order of business for the new session, with fast passage through the House expected Friday, was part of a GOP attempt to undercut Obama quickly, and devastatingly, even before he got to his State of the Union address: He’d either have to concede on approving a project he has resisted and his base hates, or kick off his promised era of bipartisan cooperation with what would be only his third veto ever.

Without Senate Democrats in place to block bills from getting to the president’s desk, vetoes are expected to be a major element of the next two years on issues from Obamacare to environmental regulations to new Iran sanctions.

Tuesday’s action doesn’t mean Keystone won’t eventually be approved, perhaps in another form, or as part of a larger deal. But already, Earnest was hinting at a back-up plan that could keep construction from starting while Obama’s in office: A Nebraska court is still deliberating on the final proposed route for the pipeline, and Earnest said Tuesday that the State Department review process, already used to delay construction, could begin anew then.

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