WASHINGTON — The House voted 225-201 Wednesday to sue President Barack Obama for exceeding his executive authority, launching an unprecedented legal challenge by a congressional body against a president.
GOP leaders say the lawsuit is intended to restore balance between the executive and legislative branches. They accuse the Obama administration of repeatedly circumventing Congress to change existing laws.
Democrats call the suit a political stunt and say the president has resorted to using his executive powers because of congressional inaction and gridlock.
Wednesday's vote only reinforced the growing distrust between Democrats and Republicans as it became a partisan rallying cry for both parties.
Five conservative Republicans, and all Democrats, voted against the lawsuit: Reps. Paul Broun of Georgia, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Steve Stockman of Texas.
Florida Republicans all voted yes.
The resolution authorizes House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to file suit in federal court on behalf of the full body "to seek appropriate relief" for Obama's failure to enforce a provision of the Affordable Care Act that would penalize businesses that did not offer basic health insurance to their employees.
That provision's effective date has been delayed twice by the administration and won't fully take effect until 2016.
By suing Obama to demand that he carry out specific provisions of the 2010 health care overhaul, House Republicans would be asking the courts to hold him to the letter of a law that they all opposed and that the House has voted more than 50 times to dismantle. When he unveiled the suit, Boehner insisted it was about more than just Obama.
"If this president can get away with making his own laws, future presidents will have the ability to as well. The House has an obligation to stand up for the legislative branch," he said.
Democrats warned the suit could be the first step toward impeaching Obama. That point has become a staple of campaign messaging for Democrats as they seek to defy the historical trend in which a president's party loses seats in the midterm of his second term.
On the road in Kansas City, Mo., Obama cast the lawsuit as a "political stunt" and a distraction from the public's priorities.
"Every vote they're taking like that means a vote they're not taking to actually help you," he told his audience. He urged Republicans to "stop just hating all the time."
Democrats said the lawsuit would go nowhere and was designed only to encourage conservatives to vote in this November's congressional elections. They also warned repeatedly that it could be a precursor for a more drastic GOP effort. "The lawsuit is a drumbeat pushing members of the Republican Party to impeachment," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
The committee charged with electing more Democrats to the House said this week it has raised more than $7 million since the suit was announced.
Republicans have accused Obama of enforcing provisions he likes and ignoring others.
These include not notifying Congress before releasing five Taliban members from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl; blocking some deportations of children in the U.S. illegally; and waiving some provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law.
"The Constitution is clear: Congress makes the laws; the Judiciary interprets the laws; and the President executes the laws. As we've all witnessed, however, there is no end in sight to President Obama working around Congress to get what he wants,'' said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville.
Democrats say Obama has acted legally and has simply used his authority as chief executive.
"This lawsuit and talk of impeachment will add to the $24 billion wasted when Republicans shut down the government and the $79 million wasted on the more than 50 times House Republicans voted to repeal health care access for Americans,'' said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
Republicans have not laid out a timetable for filing the suit.
For the suit to survive, the GOP would first have to prove that the House had been injured by Obama's actions. It is unclear whether the suit could be decided while Obama is still in office.
Timothy K. Lewis, a former judge in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was nominated by former President George H.W. Bush, said that with appeals, it would take at least 11/2 to two years for the suit to wind through the federal judicial system. Obama leaves office in January 2017.
This report contains information from McClatchy Newspapers, the Associated Press and Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary.