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Obama uses autopen to keep government open

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President Obama on Friday turned to mechanics to get him out of a jam, using an autopen to sign an emergency spending bill Congress sent him late Thursday.

Mr. Obama was traveling in Indonesia as part of a week-long trip to the Pacific Rim, but needed to approve the stopgap spending bill before midnight in order to keep the government open.

A White House aide confirmed the president did use an autopen, which is a mechanical device used to apply a copy of someone’s signature.

The bill passed the House Thursday afternoon and the Senate Thursday evening, and was sent to the White House at 8:58 p.m., which meant there was probably enough time to ship the legislation to Indonesia for his signature.

There is a precedent for that course of action. In 1984 President Reagan had a bill flown to China so he could sign it in time to keep bankruptcy courts operating, and in 1999 President Clinton had a measure flown to Turkey so he could sign it.

But government lawyers began to wonder at the time whether that expense was necessary, and during President George W. Bush’s administration they released an opinion that an autopen could be used.

Mr. Bush never took that step, but Mr. Obama first did earlier this year when he okayed use of an autopen to sign an extension of provisions of the Patriot Act while he was traveling in France.

Some Republicans protested, questioning whether an automated signature met the Constitution’s requirement that if the president approves a bill, “he shall sign it.”

Mr. Obama has also missed a signing deadline before. In later September the president was campaigning out West as the deadline for the annual spending bills was approaching. Congress sent him a stopgap measure just before the midnight deadline, but the president was still en route back from his trip, and wasn’t able to sign the bill until just after midnight.

Technically, that meant the government should have stopped many functions for at least those few minutes, but the White House said they often overlook short delays like that.

“In accordance with longstanding precedent, government shutdown operations do not commence on the day that funding is scheduled to expire if there is reasonable assurance that the bill will be signed into law that day,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

The situation arises somewhat regularly, including a 2010 stopgap funding measure and another 2011 measure.

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