President Obama challenged congressional Republicans to embrace the “shared responsibility” of governance even as the White House appears ready to use unilateral executive powers to battle Capitol Hill. With Republicans taking over the House and increasing their number in the Senate, Obama faces the possibility of having his agenda stalled with limited room to maneuver — making for tough sledding in the two years leading up to his 2012 re-election bid.
In response, Obama is expected to make more frequent use of executive orders, vetoes, signing statements and policy initiatives that originate within the federal agencies to maneuver around congressional Republicans who are threatening to derail initiatives he has already put in place, including health care reforms, and to launch serial investigations into his administration’s spending.
“There is going to be an effort on the president’s part to use [executive powers] to satisfy his base and institutionalize what he can,” said John Kenneth White, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency begins regulating greenhouse gas emissions at some energy plants and factories — a move Obama pushed for after his cap-and-trade environmental legislation stalled in Congress.
The move angered many Republicans, who are vowing to block the new regulations they say threatens the nation’s fragile economic recovery and who objected to an end-run around the legislative process.
“It’s unclear what recourse Republicans have, but I think you will see a lot of battles where Obama’s nominees are held up over regulatory decisions that are not directly related,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and former Senate staffer. “The legislative branch really feels they should control the laws that affect people.”
Obama said during his 2008 campaign that he wouldn’t use signing statements, codicils presidents can attach to bills challenging
or refusing to enforce parts of a law, the way his predecessor, President George W. Bush, did. But since taking office, Obama issued signing statements on budgetary matters, foreign aid, commission appointments and more — along with a memorandum promising to use “restraint” whenever exercising that power.
The administration defended Obama’s use of such powers, including making recess appointments, as a proper exercise of his authority and often as a response to Republican obstructionism. On signing statements, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama used them to highlight “what problems might be inherent in a piece of legislation, without asking that the federal government disallow or ignore congressional intent.”
Obama also hasn’t hesitated to make policy through executive order, including freezing federal workers’ pay, launching an investigation of the BP oil spill and cracking down on Somali outlaws.
“He is the manager in chief, and things like signing statements and however you thwart the will of Congress, sure — there are lots of things that go on other than passing new laws and giving out money that are all part of managing this incredible enterprise,” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution expert on the presidency.
L. Randolph Lowry, president of Lipscomb University and a national expert in dispute resolution, said the key for the administration and Republicans in balancing power will be a show of mutual respect.
“Power rarely stays with one side forever,” Lowry said. “I think the president and Congress will have to be cognizant of the fact that they will have a long and ongoing relationship.”
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