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Senate GOP Considers Options on Recess Appointments

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Senate Republicans at their retreat this week are expected to consider ways to take a stand against the White House and Senate Democrats after four controversial recess appointments were made earlier this month, Senate Republicans said today.

“It’s going to be discussed” at the Republican retreat Wednesday, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know what’s going to be done, but it can’t be just Chuck Grassley ... and a couple of other people.”

On the Senate floor, Grassley said that President Barack Obama’s recent recess appointments are “a matter of concern to my Republican colleagues, as it should be for all Senators; we must consider how we will respond to the president and restore a constitutional balance.”

He called for long-serving Senate Democrats to show concern about the damage to the institution, invoking the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was an ardent protector of the Senate’s power.

“Where is a member of the president’s party today who is like a more recent Senate institutionalist, Robert C. Byrd?” Grassley asked. “He defended the powers of the Senate when presidents overreached, even presidents of his own party.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, also said he expects the issue to be discussed at the retreat. The issue could also come up at the first-of-the-year weekly GOP caucus lunch scheduled for Tuesday.

The Senate GOP is set to meet at Mount Vernon on Wednesday for its annual retreat. Ostensibly, GOP Senators could look to slow progress on White House or other Democratic initiatives, but no Members have yet announced that they plan to do so.

The Republicans’ comments came as the Senate approved the nomination, 74-16, of Nebraska Supreme Court Judge John M. Gerrard to be U.S. district judge for the District of Nebraska.

The vote on Gerrard is the first nomination vote since Obama appointed Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and filled three slots, including one Republican spot, on the National Labor Relations Board.

Republicans noted that the Gerrard vote was set by a unanimous consent agreement Dec. 17, before the controversial recess appointments, which were put in place Jan. 4.

“With regard to this nomination I hope my colleagues understand that even though we are proceeding under regular order today, it is only because this unanimous consent agreement was locked in before the president demonstrated his monarchy mentality by making those appointments,” Grassley said. “I am not going to hold this nominee accountable for the outrageous actions of the president.”

Republicans called the recess appointments a power grab by the White House and questioned their legitimacy. They also said they expect a lawsuit challenging the appointments to be filed by companies that are regulated by the agencies. A handful of pro-business groups have already filed lawsuits against the NLRB appointments, including the National Federation of Independent Business.

In order to prevent recess appointments from President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pioneered the idea that both chambers would meet in pro forma sessions.

Bush never challenged the pro forma sessions, but Obama did with his appointments. He said that the pro forma sessions were a gimmick and that Congress was actually in recess, giving him the opportunity to make the appointments.

Republicans argue that Congress was in session and that it’s not up to the White House to determine what counts as an official meeting of the legislative branch. They also cite the Dec. 23 pro forma session in which the Senate agreed to a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday as evidence that business did get conducted.

Democrats said that without a leader, the CFPB would not be able to fulfill its consumer protection mandate and therefore the situation warranted taking the step against pro forma sessions to make a recess appointment.

Democrats also said that GOP opposition to a CFPB chief was unprecedented and amounted to sour grapes over losing the legislative battle to create the agency.

Republicans had said their opposition did not have to do with Cordray but with how the agency was set up. They sought changes that would create a board to lead the agency and require it to be funded through the regular appropriations process.

Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to vote this week on a request from Obama to raise the debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion as Congress prepares to hear the State of the Union address.

With the president set to speak Tuesday evening and Senate Republicans scheduled to go on their annual retreat Wednesday, the debt-ceiling vote is likely to come Thursday.

Under the deal reached in August, the debt limit will be raised by $2.1 trillion in separate increases requested by the president, and Congress would vote whether to reject the request.

The rejection resolution is not expected to pass in the Democratic-led Senate. The Republican-run House passed the resolution last week 239-176.

The August agreement gives Congress the opportunity to reject the request, but the president would likely veto the rejection and get the increase anyway.

Since August, the debt ceiling has been raised by $900 billion, with Congress failing to block the president’s previous requests.

A Republican aide said that it’s striking that the president is seeking a $1.2 trillion increase in the debt ceiling the same week he is coming to Congress to ask voters for another term.

In order to avoid default, voters “are forced to give [Obama] the first, but there is no way they will give him the second,” the aide added.

A Democratic aide said the president’s message is expected to be about “fairness and jobs,” and that Republicans have been on the wrong side of the issue by protecting upper income earners at the expense of the middle class.

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