WASHINGTON — 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. No Democrats voted for it.
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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.
“Are you willing to let any president choose what laws to execute and what laws to change?” asked House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
The 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 of Michigan. “My answer to each is ‘priceless.'”
However, 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.”
Congressional lawsuits against presidents are rare. In 2008, a federal judge backed a suit by Democrats who then controlled the House and were trying to force the Bush administration to honor House subpoenas of senior White House officials. Though the House won the first round in court, that decision was under appeal when a settlement was reached and the lawsuit was dropped.
On Wednesday, neither side wasted time in using the fight to mine campaign contributions and line up support for their candidates.
House Democrats emailed one fundraising solicitation as debate was underway and another moments after the vote, with one saying, “The GOP is chomping at the bit to impeach the president.” And White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer emailed supporters, saying, ‘This is the least productive Congress in decades. And instead of doing their job, they are suing the president for doing his.”
The Republican Party also went to work. An email called the House vote a “huge step” in curbing Obama and added, “Contribute right now to end Obama’s executive overreach by expanding our Republican majority in the House and gaining a majority in the Senate.”
Though the vote was almost entirely along party lines, five conservative GOP lawmakers opposed 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.
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.
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.