One day after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. helped President Obama bungle the oath of office on Inauguration Day 2009, the president held a do-over at the White House out of “an abundance of caution” over constitutional hiccups.
Now, lawmakers are wondering where that caution has gone.
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has tested the limits of constitutionality by becoming the first president to approve legislation by autopen, rather than signing it himself. Now he is escalating a feud with Congress over the extent to which his powers as commander in chief allow him to pursue the war in Libya.
The autopen was used last month on a bill to extend the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act. On Friday, a group of 21 House Republicans wrote the president and asked him to re-sign the legislation in person, just to remove all doubt.
“We’re seeing a pattern develop of a very casual approach to the Constitution or to current law as it exists,” said Rep. Tom Graves, Georgia Republican, who organized the letter. He said it’s “a pattern that Congress is getting frustrated with.”
Sunday marked the 90th day since he alerted Congress that the U.S. had commenced hostilities in Libya. According to the 1973 War Powers Resolution, Mr. Obama had either 60 or 90 days to obtain congressional approval or withdraw troops.
The House passed a resolution two weeks ago giving Mr. Obama 14 days to explain his reasoning. That time ran out on Friday.
The White House says it is not violating the War Powers Resolution because U.S. troops are only supporting a NATO effort and are not directly engaged in hostilities. That argument was laid out in a 32-page report to Congress.
Critics from both major political parties point to the hundreds of millions of dollars of munitions that have been dropped on Libyan targets and the ongoing attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles as evidence of hostilities.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said members of Congress have repeatedly shown deference to the president, but he “has not exhibited a similar appreciation” for their role. He said House members “will review all options available to hold the administration to account.”
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, last week filed a lawsuit challenging the Libyan operation in court. He said he will force the issue this week by offering an amendment to defund the military operation entirely as part of the debate over the annual defense spending bill.
The White House says the president is comfortable with his reading of the situation, and press secretary Jay Carney last week pointedly noted Mr. Obama’s credentials “as a constitutional lawyer himself.”
As for the autopen incident, the White House points to a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel brief from the George W. Bush administration. The brief argues that it meets the Constitution’s requirement that if the president approves of a bill, “he shall sign it.”
The Bush administration did not use the method because it was still suspect. Last month, though, key provisions of the Patriot Act were in danger of expiring, and Congress delayed an extension until the last minute, when Mr. Obama was traveling in Europe.