New York Times
By Jeremy Peters
December 4, 2014
Congress moved on two fronts Thursday to test the limits of presidential authority, with a surprising maneuver in the Senate to begin debating President Obama’s war powers against the Islamic State and a vote in the House to prohibit him from enforcing his executive action on immigration.
With the two parties in a perpetual state of dispute, the actions represented a rare, if unplanned, shared view among liberals and conservatives: Through Congress’s passivity or its inability to compromise, it has ceded too much authority to an executive branch more than willing to step into the void.
Mr. Obama has angered Republicans on Capitol Hill by announcing that he would use his executive authority to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, a decision conservatives condemn as an abuse of his constitutional powers. And lawmakers in both parties have rebuked the president for executing a war in the Middle East that many believe has not been properly authorized by Congress.
The simultaneous moves in the two chambers demonstrated a strong desire to wrest some of that power back.
“The executive gets more powerful the more dysfunctional Congress gets,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who supported forcing a vote to revisit the president’s war authority. “So there’s a natural transition of power away from the legislature to the executive when nothing can happen here.”
The action on Capitol Hill focused on two of the most urgent and divisive issues of the moment — immigration and war policy — and foreshadowed the kinds of debates likely to dominate the new Congress after it is sworn in next month. Adding more volatility to the mix will be the frenzied politics of a presidential campaign, which is likely to feature several members of Congress.
The dynamics of the 2016 campaign were on display as senators on the Foreign Relations Committee unexpectedly found themselves confronting the question of war against the Islamic State.
It began with procedural sleight of hand by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is expected to seek the Republican nomination for president and has positioned himself as a less hawkish alternative to the other potential candidates in his party.
Mr. Paul used a routine meeting over an unrelated issue — clean water — to force his colleagues to schedule a vote on authorizing force against the Islamic State. The committee agreed to move forward, though only after dissent from Republicans like Senator John McCain of Arizona who take a more traditional interventionist approach. Mr. McCain called Mr. Paul’s proposal, which would prohibit the use of ground forces in most cases and set strict time limits on the conflict, “crazy.”
A vote, on either Mr. Paul’s plan or a similar one, could happen as early as Tuesday. If a plan is approved, it would get a floor vote before the end of the year if Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed to put it at the top of a crowded Senate calendar.
At issue is the administration’s position that it is justified in engaging in military activity today because of two acts of Congress that are now more than a decade old: a 2001 authorization passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and a 2002 authorization sought by President George W. Bush for the Iraq war.
“Thirteen years later, we are still working off a 2001 authorization that has led us to many places well beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” said Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Across the Rotunda, House Republicans turned their attention to the pressing matter of preventing a government shutdown when federal spending authority runs out on Dec. 11. The House on Thursday voted 219 to 197 in favor of a resolution by Representative Ted Yoho, Republican of Florida, to halt implementation of the president’s order stopping the deportations of millions of unauthorized immigrants. Three Democrats supported the measure, and three Republicans voted present.
But the vote was largely symbolic, enabling angry House Republicans to express displeasure with the president for altering the nation’s immigration policy without congressional approval. Mr. Reid has already made clear that he will not take up the House’s measure.
With immigration politics caught up in the fight over government spending, Thursday’s vote was part of a two-step strategy by House Republican leaders to corral their more conservative members and pass a broad spending bill so the government does not close on Dec. 11.
Next week, House Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team plan to bring to the floor legislation that would fund almost all of the government through the next fiscal year, while funding the Department of Homeland Security — the agency primarily charged with executing the president’s immigration policy — only into early next year. At that point, Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and believe they will have more political might to chip away at the president’s order.
Many Republicans see the new Congress as an opportunity to curtail presidential power.
“I think he’s abusing the powers of the presidency and he is setting a whole new bar in terms of executive overreach that this country has never seen before,” said Representative Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, who was elected as a senator last month.
But Republicans face their own divisions. Many of the more conservative members pushed Mr. Boehner to take a harder line against the president. Mr. Boehner instead is prepared to go around them and rely on Democrats to pass his bill.
Both Mr. Boehner and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, believe the bill could pass with bipartisan support, but there are some policy differences to be bridged.
The decision by the Republican leadership to rely on Democrats has frustrated many of the House’s more conservative members. Representative Matt Salmon, Republican of Arizona, said Thursday’s vote was toothless. “I think it would be a lot cheaper and cost-effective and quicker to send the president a Hallmark card,” he said.
Some Republicans have urged Mr. Boehner to retaliate by canceling the president’s State of the Union address to Congress.
When asked if the State of the Union invitation was in jeopardy, Mr. Boehner responded with a laugh. “The more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes,” he said. “Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?”
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