White House taunts GOP opponents over recess appointments

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

White House spokesman Jay Carney refused Thursday to explain the administration’s legal justification for President Barack Obama’s attempted recess appointment on Wednesday of three Democratic allies to government positions, but instead dared Republicans — including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — to campaign against the president’s decision.

GOP leaders may try to argue that the appointments violate the Constitution, said Carney, but “they seem to believe that after all we went through in 2007 and 2008 … Wall Street should go back to the way it was; the financial institutions should regulate themselves,” he said during the Thursday midday press conference.

“They can take that on the road and try and sell it, but I don’t think there are going to be many buyers,” he said to the reporters.

Carney had a receptive audience. Most reporters’ questions characterized the dispute as caused by GOP political anger, not by a potentially illegal presidential maneuver intended to help him and his allies portray the GOP as defenders of Wall Street excess.

GOP officials and lawyers agree the president can make temporary “recess appointments” when the Senate is in recess. But they emphasize a longstanding precedent, one previously backed by Obama’s own Justice Department, requiring at least three days of recess before the president may act.

Since December, the Senate has not been in recess that long because the House has been using its constitutional authority to keep the Senate open, even though nearly all the senators have left town for Christmas.

By “circumventing Congress to appoint a new administrator,” said a Dec. 4 statement from Romney’s campaign, Obama’s decision “represents Chicago-style politics at its worst.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum slammed the appointments Dec. 5, saying “[W]e are a country of laws … [and] this president routinely runs roughshod over the law.”

Carney repeatedly refused to provide a legal counter to the GOP’s constitutional arguments.

“Our assessment is that Congress has been in recess and has made every indication that it will be in recess for a sustained period of time, and that gaveling in and gaveling out for seven seconds does not constitute a recess with regard to the President’s constitutional authority,” Carney said.

The GOP “can make a lot of [legal] process arguments about it [but] we feel very strongly that the Constitution and the legal case is strongly on our side.”

Carney’s emphasis on the political payoffs of the legal dispute matched Obama’s emphasis Dec. 5 when he announced his appointment of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Cordray “is the right man for the job,” he told an enthusiastic crowd of high-schoolers in Cordray’s home state, which has 18 must-win electoral votes up for grabs in the November election.

“When Congress refuses to act and as a result hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as President to do what I can without them,” Obama declared. “I have an obligation. … I will not stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people they were elected to serve.”

Carney also pitched that political message at Romney, who is widely regarded by Democrats as the strongest GOP candidate, and who condemned on Thursday Obama’s claim to have lawfully appointed Cordray.

“I find it a little rich that … the former governor of Massachusetts decided to take a position … against the security and protection of working and middle-class Americans,” Carney said.

Carney made the same political argument against Romney’s opposition to the president’s attempt to appoint two Democratic labor lawyers, and one required GOP-affiliated labor lawyer, to the NLRB.

“The president acted because Congress wouldn’t, and it was clear that Congress wouldn’t — and numerous senators have made clear they won’t” approve his nominees, Carney said. The board “is important to protect workers’ rights,” said Carney, adding that disputes over the legality of the appointments are an “esoteric conversation.”:

Reporters did little to challenge Carney’s claim that the president’s appointments were legal, and instead treated GOP objections as political or personal.

“Why would [the president] choose to start the new year by angering Republicans on Capitol Hill?” asked one reporter. “How concerned at all is the President that the Republicans could retaliate by withholding or by resisting compromise on things like extending the payroll tax cuts for the full year, or perhaps even harden their opposition, their resistance to further nominations?” asked another.

Follow Neil on Twitter