A sharply divided House approved a Republican plan Wednesday to launch a campaign-season lawsuit against President Barack Obama, accusing him of exceeding the bounds of his constitutional authority. Obama and other Democrats derided the effort as a stunt aimed at tossing political red meat to conservative voters.
Just a day before lawmakers were to begin a five-week summer recess, debate over the proposed lawsuit underscored the harshly partisan tone that has dominated the current Congress almost from its start in January 2013.
The vote to sue Obama was 225 to 201. Five conservative Republicans voted with Democrats in opposing the lawsuit: Reps. Paul Broun of Georgia, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Steve Stockman of Texas. No Democrats voted for it.
Republicans said the legal action, focusing on Obama’s implementation of his prized health care overhaul, was designed to prevent a further presidential power grab and his deciding unilaterally how to enforce laws.
“No member needs to be reminded about the bonds of trust that have been frayed or the damage that’s already been done to our economy and to our people,” declared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Are you willing to let any president choose what laws to execute and what laws to change?”
Republicans also scoffed at Democratic claims that the lawsuit would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“What price do you place on the continuation of our system of checks and balances? What price do you put on the Constitution of the United States?” said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich. “My answer to each is ‘priceless.’ ”
Democrats said the lawsuit would go nowhere and was designed only to encourage conservatives to vote in this November’s congressional elections. They also warned repeatedly that it could be a precursor of a more drastic GOP effort. Said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.: “The lawsuit is a drumbeat pushing members of the Republican Party to impeachment.”
In fact, Democrats already are using that argument to mine campaign contributions. House Democrats emailed one fundraising solicitation as debate was underway and another moments after the vote.
“The GOP is chomping at the bit to impeach the president,” they wrote. “We’ve got to get the president’s back.”
Some prominent conservatives including former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have called for Obama’s impeachment, and some House GOP lawmakers have not ruled it out. Boehner has said he has no such plans and has called Democratic impeachment talk a “scam” to raise money.
“Impeachment is off the table. Why hasn’t the speaker said that,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
On the road in Kansas City, Missouri, Obama cast the lawsuit as a “political stunt” and a distraction from the public’s priorities.
“Every vote they’re taking like that means a vote they’re not taking to actually help you,” he told his audience. He urged Republicans to “stop just hating all the time.”
By suing Obama to demand that he carry out specific provisions of the 2010 health care overhaul, House Republicans would be asking the courts to hold him to the letter of a law that they all opposed and that the House has voted over 50 times to dismantle.
Republicans have accused Obama of exceeding his powers in a range of areas, saying he has enforced provisions he likes and ignored others.
These include not notifying Congress before releasing five Taliban members from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for captive Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, blocking the deportation of some children who are in the U.S. illegally and waiving some provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law.
Democrats say Obama has acted legally and has simply used the authority he has as chief executive.
Republicans have not laid out a timetable for actually filing the suit.
As for its chances of legal success, federal courts are often reluctant to intervene in disputes between the executive and legislative branches. For the suit to survive, the GOP would first have to prove that the House had been injured by Obama’s actions. And even if the lawsuit was heard, it is unclear whether it could be decided while Obama was still in office.
Timothy K. Lewis, a former judge in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was nominated by former President George H.W. Bush, said that with appeals, it would take at least one-and-a-half to two years for the suit to wind through the federal judicial system.
Obama leaves office in January 2017.
Republicans have particularly objected that Obama has twice delayed the law’s so-called employer mandate. The provision requires companies with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours weekly to offer health care coverage or pay fines, while businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempt.
The requirement was initially to take effect this year. Now, companies with 50 to 99 employees have until 2016 to comply while bigger companies have until next year.
Democrats warned that the lawsuit could cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Republicans provided no specifics about the potential price tag, but the measure would allow House attorneys to hire outside lawyers and require quarterly public reports on expenditures.
Congress cooperates – and fights – as recess nears
Eager to begin a monthlong break, Congress leavened its customary heavy partisanship on Wednesday with a pinch of compromise, advancing legislation to repair the deeply troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and working to clear funds for highway construction at home and missile defense in Israel.
There was a modest amount of progress on compromise legislation during the day, and hopes in both parties for considerably more before a scheduled adjournment on Thursday.
On a vote of 420-5, the House overwhelmingly approved a compromise bill to clean up the scandal-soiled VA, where some officials are accused of covering up long delays in patient care. The $16.3 billion measure would allow veterans to get outside care if they live too far from a VA health facility or face a delay of longer than 30 days in getting an appointment.
It also includes money to hire new doctors and allows the fast-track firing of senior officials found to be complicit in hiding agency shortcomings.
The legislation was a compromise between the House and Senate – one of few in the Congress that convened 18 months ago – with less money than Democrats wanted and a significant concession from conservative Republicans as well. It would raise federal deficits by $10 billion, one of very few times since tea party-aligned lawmakers came to power that the House has agreed to new spending without also insisting on offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Concerns about future costs prompted the conservative Club for Growth to oppose the bill. “It creates an unproven new entitlement that sets taxpayers on a course to spend half a trillion dollars over the next decade,” the organization said.
Even so, a final vote was expected on Thursday in the Senate.
Legislation to assure uninterrupted funds for highway and bridge construction was stalled at least temporarily in a last-minute dispute between the House and Senate. Aides in both houses expressed confidence it would be resolved in time for final approval on Thursday.
The prospects were far worse for Obama’s call for legislation to address what many lawmakers have called a humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico.
In the House, Republicans worked to secure the votes for $659 million to cope with the growing influx of young immigrants arriving without parents. Most Democrats are opposed because of a provision allowing rapid deportation of unaccompanied children reaching the United States illegally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The White House, which initially agreed to the change, threatened a veto in the unlikely event the legislation reaches Obama’s desk.
The situation was reversed in the Senate, where Democrat-drafted legislation would provide $2.7 billion to deal with the young immigrants but would omit provisions to ease deportation rules. The measure also includes funds for firefighting efforts at home and for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
It cleared a Senate procedural hurdle on a vote of 63-33, three more than the 60 required, a roll call that temporarily masked the deeper disagreements over deportation rules. Officials in both parties predicted the measure would soon collapse.
That would clear the way for the Senate to approve $225 million for Israel’s missile defense system, which is credited with intercepting rockets launched from the Gaza Strip during the current three-week war.
The bill is then expected to clear the House easily as lawmakers head out for a round of summer campaigning.