Escalating their confrontation with President Obama, House Republicans gave Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) the power to initiate a lawsuit accusing the administration of breaching constitutional duties through executive orders that served as an end run around Congress.
The nearly party-line vote Wednesday, 225 Republicans voting yes and 201 Democratic nays, illustrated the increasingly polarized climate on Capitol Hill as both parties used the pending federal suit as a rallying cry to their voting bases ahead of the November elections. Halfway across the continent Obama basked in the House’s GOP move, almost gloating at the prospect of being sued for the actions he has taken in the face of a historically high level of congressional gridlock.
“They’re going to sue me for taking executive actions to help people. So they’re mad I’m doing my job,” Obama said at an economics speech in Kansas City. “And by the way, I’ve told them I’d be happy to do with you. The only reason I’m doing it on my own is because you’re not doing anything.”
The clash came a day before Congress expects to begin its five-and-a-half-week summer break, as several must-pass bills on reshaping veteran health care and highway construction appeared headed for passage but little else has been done this session. The House and Senate headed in dramatically different directions on legislation designed to deal with the flow of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving at the border.
Expecting a flurry of work once the elections are over in November, leaders in both parties have instead tried to position their rank-and-file to take advantage of the gridlock by blaming the other side. By the time this year concludes, the 113th Congress is all but assured of being the least productive in recorded history in terms of producing legislation signed into law.
The details of Boehner’s lawsuit mattered little — it focuses on a narrow portion of the landmark health-care law — and instead each side focused on the larger symbolism of the moment.
Democrats linked the lawsuit to calls from outspoken conservative activists urging the impeachment of Obama, a battle cry that Democrats have helped amplify in an effort to raise millions of dollars in campaign donations the past week. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), glaring at Republicans during the heated debate, accused Boehner of caving into “impeachment-hungry extremists.”
“Tell them impeachment is off the table. That’s what I had to do,” she said, noting several attempts by liberals to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney while she was House speaker.
Boehner, who has repeatedly said impeachment is not in the cards, connected the suit to a series of executive orders that Obama issued on climate change, immigration rules, the health law and raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, saying that these were power grabs that did not have requisite backing from Congress.
“Are you willing to let anyone tear apart what our founders built,” Boehner said during debate.
The lawsuit is the culmination of heightened conflict since Obama took office in 2009, particularly the past 3 1/2 years that Boehner has wielded the speaker’s gavel. It’s also unprecedented in its nature. Plenty of congressmen, of both parties, have filed lawsuits or briefs in support of suits against presidents, past and present, which has resulted in federal judges often dismissing the cases because usually only those affected by the law had standing to file suit.
The novel idea for Thursday’s vote was driven by a clutch of conservative legal scholars who contend that the best way for Republicans to have legal standing in federal court is if the entire body passes legislation authorizing it.
Democrats predicted the courts would dismiss the suit, while additionally mocking Republicans for their choice of focusing the legal fight over Obama’s executive decisions to delay certain mandates in the health law — a law that GOP lawmakers unanimously oppose and do not want to see implemented.
If the federal courts take up the matter, it could take years to reach conclusion and may have a larger impact on setting the parameters of the balance between the next president and the Congress.
The short-term impact will the political jockeying in the next three months ahead of the fall elections. Democrats said the lawsuit would turn off middle-of-the-road voters who begin to make up their minds in the late summer and early fall, suggesting it distracted from Republican hopes to focus on economic issues.
“They are limping into August, wrestling with themselves over impeachment, and being criticized for suing the president instead of addressing issues that matter to the middle class. This is not the August recess that they anticipated,” Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.
In a four-day span after a top Obama adviser said he took the threat of impeachment seriously, the DCCC sent a flurry of fundraising pitches and brought in more than $2 million.
In the floor debate, the two sides clashed in the sharpest of terms.
Republicans passionately defended the lawsuit as a way to defend Congress from executive overreach. “I believe in this institution, I believe in the Constitution,” said Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) said.
Democrat after Democrat focused remarks on impeachment, what they said was the logical outcome of a lawsuit asking the courts to say Obama had violated the Constitution.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, called it a “monumental waste of time, energy, and funds” that was only designed to encourage conservative voters to back Republicans this fall.
“This is a political maneuver timed to peak as Americans are going to the polls in November for the midterm elections. This lawsuit is the drumbeat pushing members of the Republican party to impeachment,” Slaughter said.
In Kansas City, Obama didn’t bring up the hot topic of the possibility of an impeachment proceeding. Instead, Obama showered attention on the lawsuit, relishing the opportunity to belittle the GOP.
“Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hatin’ all the time,” Obama said at the Uptown Theater here. “Everyone sees this as a political stunt, but it’s worse than that because every vote they’re taking ... means a vote they’re not taking to help people.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report. Goldfarb reported from Kansas City.
This article was first published in The Washington Post on July 30, 2014.
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