House Republicans voted Wednesday evening to authorize an unprecedented lawsuit against President Obama, escalating a separation of powers battle between Congress and the White House that is heavily tinged with election-year politics.
Mr. Obama mocked Republicans, telling them to “stop just hatin’ all the time,” but GOP lawmakers said they felt boxed in, being unable to get their legislation through the Democrat-controlled Senate and having to watch as the president tweaks, waives or ignores laws Congress has written but which he dislikes.
“This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats; it’s about defending the Constitution that we swore an oath to uphold and acting decisively when it might be compromised,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, as he pleaded for Democrats to look beyond their party allegiance and defend Congress against an ever more powerful chief executive. “Are you willing to let any president choose what laws to execute and what laws to change?”
The 225-201 vote, which broke down almost entirely along party lines, was a resounding rejection of Mr. Boehner’s call, as Democrats said Republicans were more interested in repealing Obamacare and stopping the president’s agenda.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the chamber’s top Democrat, said she could see no reason for the Republican effort unless it’s a precursor for impeachment.
“Why would you sue somebody unless you want to prove something? And why would you go down that path unless you wanted to do something about it?” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Middle-class families don’t have time for the Republican partisan grudge match with the president.”
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Mr. Boehner a day earlier said there were no plans to pursue impeachment and that Democrats are the only ones talking about impeachment because it’s a successful fundraising tactic for them.
Mrs. Pelosi, though, said Mr. Boehner must officially rule impeachment “off the table” — a phrase she used when she squelched efforts by her fellow Democrats to impeach President George W. Bush.
The details of the lawsuit itself were almost an afterthought, but under the resolution passed Wednesday, House attorneys can be directed to file suit challenging Mr. Obama’s decision to issue waivers of his own health care law’s “employer mandate,” which was supposed to require large companies to provide insurance for their employees or else face fines.
Mr. Obama waived the fines for 2014, then expanded his waiver to include 2015 and 2016.
Mr. Boehner said House Republicans support waiving those fines, which is why it’s all the more strange that Mr. Obama acted alone, without coming to Congress to change the law. He said that situation is why Republicans chose to sue over Obamacare rather than a host of other perceived overreaches including those involving environmental and immigration policies.
The lawsuit’s chances for success are questionable.
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Legal analysts said the biggest hurdle will be overcoming the federal courts’ rules requiring a plaintiff to show harm before the judges will hear the case. Institutional harm to Congress’ constitutional powers generally has been rejected as a sufficient reason.
But some analysts said it’s an open question for the Supreme Court — and they argue Mr. Obama’s overreach has been so dramatic that judges might be tempted to get involved in order to rebalance the two other branches of government.
Speaking in Kansas City, Missouri, hours before the vote, Mr. Obama taunted Republicans, asking them to forgo the lawsuit and instead back his agenda of raising the minimum wage, boosting spending on infrastructure and other steps he said would help the middle class.
“Come on and help out a little bit. Stop being mad all the time. Stop just hatin’ all the time,” the president told a raucous crowd. “Come on. Let’s get some work done together.”
Minutes after Wednesday’s vote, the White House sent out an email to supporters vowing to take more executive action — this time issuing a policy laying out stiffer worker safety rules for federal contractors.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer also said in the email that Mr. Obama will “deal with our broken immigration system in the months ahead.”
Mr. Obama, who had some legislative successes in his first two years in office, backed by huge majorities in both the House and Senate, has grown increasingly frustrated since 2011, when Republicans took control of the House and began trying to roll back his policies.
With Democrats still controlling the Senate, that’s often led to gridlock on Capitol Hill — and Mr. Obama has enthusiastically claimed the right to take action on his own when Congress won’t.
Judges have taken a dim view of some of those actions. Last month a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that he overstepped when he made recess appointments to four key positions at a time when the Senate was meeting every three days in pro forma sessions specifically to deny him his recess powers.
Mr. Obama had argued that the Senate wasn’t really in session, but all nine justices rejected that, saying it’s up to Congress to decide those matters.
All Democrats who voted Wednesday opposed the lawsuit, as did five Republicans: Reps. Paul C. Broun of Georgia, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Steve Stockman of Texas.
“This lawsuit is merely an act of political theater that is highly unlikely to result in any real consequences for an executive branch that continues to display a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” Mr. Jones said in a statement.
He said rather than sue, the House should either impeach Mr. Obama or use its power of the purse to cancel Mr. Obama’s actions.
Both sides are expected to use Wednesday’s vote as they gin up their base ahead of November’s elections.