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The president’s veto power

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

This nation is at war. Both In Iraq and about Iraq. And on neither front does the battle seem likely to soon resolve.

As you may know, the House voted Friday to impose a deadline to end the war in Iraq by adopting legislation that calls for combat troops be pulled out next year. The president has dismissed the action as “political theater” and has vowed to veto the bill if and when it winds its way to his desk. The Senate will soon take up its own version of the bill.

The House bill authorizes $124 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year but requires that combat troops begin to withdraw by the end of August 2008 or even earlier if the Iraqi government fails to meet certain benchmarks. It proposes that some troops be left behind but only to conduct counter-terrorism and to train Iraqi troops. Congress has so far allocated more than $500 billion to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the lion’s share – 70 percent – going to Iraq.

The Senate bill’s $122 billion dollar measure would require that the president begin to withdraw troops within four months with the goal of bringing all combat troops home by the end of March 2008. Should the Senate approve the measure, which is more of a longshot than a certainty in light of the 60 votes required, President Bush has sworn to veto it. In actuality, only 51 votes are required to pass the measure out of the Senate but, pragmatically, 60 are required to bring the bill to a vote.

What, then, is the presidential power that seems destined to lead to a showdown of political might and will?

A presidential veto is the rejection of legislation approved by majorities in both houses of Congress. The word derives from the Latin and means, literally, “I forbid.”

The first presidential veto was exercised on April 5, 1792, when President Washington vetoed a bill designed to apportion representatives among the several states.

When Congress is in session, if the president exercises a veto, he or she must do so within a prescribed 10-day period and must return the rejected bill to Congress with an explanation of his or her reasons for the veto. If the president fails to sign the bill or veto it, it will become law without his or her signature at the expiration of 10 days.

If Congress has adjourned, however, preventing the president’s return of the bill, the president may withhold his or her signature, and the bill does not become law. This is what has become known as a “pocket veto.” Unlike return of a vetoed bill, Congress has neither the opportunity nor authority to override a pocket veto.

This, of course, logically raises the question of Congress overriding a “regular” veto. The procedure for so doing is essentially the same in both houses. Once vetoed legislation has been received by the originating chamber, that house is constitutionally required to reconsider the bill. Once the president’s “message” (that is, his or her explanation for vetoing the bill) is read into the journal of the receiving house, the bill is either referred to committee, (postponing reconsideration), or an “override” is immediately voted upon.

Action by both the House and Senate is required. A two-thirds majority vote of the members present is required. If one house fails to override, the other house will not attempt it. As the House bill passed 218-212, and it remains to be seen whether the Senate bill will even pass out of that house, an override seems questionable at best.

What may be left, then, is to see if this president has the political will to stand up to the Congress for the war that has fallen out of favor with the electorate or if he will try to broker a compromise.

Will we be out of Iraq any time soon? The statistics suggest that, unless the President is willing to bend or increasing public pressure is brought to bear, the answer is a likely “no” and, political grandstanding or not, the House bill may serve as little more than protest.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 926-4461 or robbins@colorado.net


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