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Will We See Veto Battles On Capitol Hill?


From the NPR studios in Culver City, California, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. President Obama's State of the Union address this week was lousy with the V word.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will veto it - taking away their health insurance, unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, a nuclear-armed Iran, new sanctions. I will veto any new sanctions bill. It will have earned my veto.

RATH: But with Republicans now firmly in control of both houses of Congress, what are their chances of overriding some of those vetoes? Fawn Johnson is a correspondent with the National Journal. Fawn, welcome.

FAWN JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

RATH: So let's look at whether Congress could possibly override a presidential veto. Both houses would need two-thirds majorities.

JOHNSON: Correct.

RATH: That means the House would require 290 votes to override if they voted in unison.


RATH: Two-hundred-forty-six Republicans would need to be joined by 44 Democrats. And in the Senate, the math is 54 Republicans would need 13 Democrats, or Independents, to get to the 67 they would require, which...

JOHNSON: That's correct.

RATH: Seems like a tall order, but...

JOHNSON: It is a tall order. It's actually - it doesn't happen very often and I went back and I did a little bit of research. The president has vetoed a total of two bills in his tenure and both of those vetoes were sustained, and they did not have the two-thirds majority to override it. President Bush, as it were, actually had three bills that his veto was overridden by the Congress. It does not happen very often, but it does happen. And there are some areas of disagreement with some Democrats that they have with the president where you could see people toying with that idea in next couple of years.

RATH: So what would be the one that you think has the biggest chance of being overridden?

JOHNSON: People are looking very closely at legislation that would place additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear disarmament talks fail. Those are - there's a deadline for some disarmament that needs to be in place by the summer. And the president has already said that should the Congress pass an Iran sanctions bill he would veto it. But there are enough Democrats in the Senate, particularly, that it's possible to get to the 67. If you do the math, the way you look at it is that there are 12 Democrats in the Senate who have supported Iran sanctions in the past. So that gets you to one short of the 67 you would need to override a veto. But the problem is, of course, that some of those Democrats are not inclined to buck the president at this particular point. And there've been some who have said that they plan to see what the president has to say, see what the State Department has to say, about how the talks are going before they make a decision on what to do on an Iran sanctions bill.

RATH: And in terms of one party having to attract another to override a presidential veto, what kind of deals get made? Is there horse trading that happens to...


RATH: To get people to come over to the other side?

JOHNSON: The place that I paid attention to this was many years ago in the Bush administration when President Bush had repeatedly vetoed children's health care legislation. And the battle for overriding that veto was actually taking place in the House. The Senate already had their 67 votes, but the House was not there. And I spent many nights outside of these meetings inside the Capitol watching these rank-and-file Republicans, some of us who - we didn't even know who they were - coming into these meetings as they were listening to them try and convince those Republicans that they should vote to override the legislation. It was never eventually successful, but it was particularly interesting to watch and also to see who became important because it wasn't your traditional leaders in the party. These were people who, you know, essentially went about their business. Some of them were relatively new to Congress, others had just been kind of sitting in the back bench for a long time.

RATH: Fawn Johnson is a correspondent with the National Journal. Fawn, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.