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The Constitution gives the president the power to make appointments when the Senate is not in session. Back when Congress was part time, that gave the president power to fill posts that otherwise might go unfilled for months.

During the past few congressional vacations, House Republicans have insisted on coming in for pro forma sessions every three days, triggering a clause in the Constitution that forces the Senate also to come into session.

Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said the White House doesn’t consider pro forma sessions to be actual work by Congress. Even though the Senate has been convening in those sessions every three days, he said, “the president’s counsel has determined that the Senate has been in recess for weeks and will be in recess for weeks.”

It’s a thorny question, and some legal authorities have agreed with Mr. Obama’s analysis.

But at least three major precedents suggest otherwise.

The Clinton administration argued that there must be a recess of at least three days to trigger the recess appointment clause. Mr. Obama’s top constitutional attorneys at the solicitor general’s office also subscribed to the three-day rule in oral arguments before the Supreme Court in 2010.

“The recess appointment power can work in a recess. I think our office has opined the recess has to be longer than three days,” Neal Katyal, then deputy solicitor general, told Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Mr. Katyal, who is now a professor at Georgetown University, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The third precedent involves Mr. Obama’s fellow Senate Democrats who, after taking control of the chamber, used pro forma sessions to stop Mr. Bush from making recess appointments in 2007 and 2008.

“I had to keep the Senate in pro-forma sessions to block the [Steven G.] Bradbury appointment. That necessarily meant no recess appointments could be made,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said as he summed up the legal consensus in 2008. Mr. Obama was in the Senate at the time.

Mr. Bradbury, an administration attorney, was nominated by Mr. Bush’s in 2005, to be an assistant attorney general, but never received a vote by the full Senate.

On Wednesday, though, Mr. Reid reversed course and said he backed the president’s move. A spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on what changed in Mr. Reid’s thinking on the constitutional question.

Other Democrats who were also in the Senate in 2007 and 2008 cheered Mr. Obama’s appointments, saying the GOP’s obstruction had gone too far. Instead of the constitutional questions, they highlighted the work the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can do.

“The Senate minority’s attempt to defang the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by depriving it of leadership is unprecedented, hurts middle-class consumers, and needed to be challenged,” said Sen Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “It is clear President Obama is doing the right thing by putting a real consumer cop like Mr. Cordray on the beat to protect the middle class.”

Part of the confusion is that the word “session” has different meanings in the Constitution. Each daily meeting is known as a “session,” but each two-year Congress is also divided into two sessions, and each begins on Jan. 3 every year.

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