WASHINGTON – For six years, Republicans railed about President Barack Obama’s “usurpation” of power. So it’s no small irony that, in one of their first acts since taking control of Congress, they are planning to invite him to usurp some more.
On Tuesday morning, a group of tea party conservatives met in the Capitol complex to complain about Republican plans to pass “trade promotion authority,” giving Obama greater ability to negotiate trade deals with less congressional say-so.
“At a time when the president has, for all intents and purposes, declared war on the Constitution’s separation of powers, it makes absolutely no sense for Congress to voluntarily give away its treaty ratification prerogatives,” Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, complained.
Niger Innis, executive director of TheTeaParty.net, said Obama “has shown outright contempt for the separation of powers,” and “there can be no worse lesson for the White House than for this Congress to voluntarily cede authority to it.”
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Leaving that session, I took a 10-minute walk to the Heritage Foundation, where Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a leading defender of congressional prerogatives, was giving a speech in which he lamented the “collapse in the separation of powers” and gave his view that “the president has usurped and created a broad executive-branch power that is not there.”
So I asked Paul about trade promotion authority, in which Congress surrenders its ability to amend trade deals negotiated by the president. Paul said conservatives’ objections are “valid,” but “I’m also a big believer in free trade, and I think free trade is a good thing.” He added that “the good of trade has caused me to vote for things that I think aren’t perfect.”
In other words, Obama is usurping power – unless Rand Paul agrees with the policy outcome.
The internal GOP struggle over trade is part of a larger tension: Even as Republicans lay the cornerstone of their new majority, there are already cracks in the foundation. In a sense, this is an inevitable byproduct of taking unified control of the legislature. Now it’s no longer enough to stop Obama (on which Republicans were unified), and Republicans must come up with their own agenda (on which there is little unity).
The latest instance of the party’s right hand not knowing what its far-right hand is doing comes from National Journal’s Daniel Newhauser, who reported Tuesday that a rump group of conservative purists is about to bolt the House Republican Study Committee, until now the main caucus for conservatives. The reasoning of this new “invitation-only” group of hard-line conservatives? The other group hasn’t been combative enough with GOP leaders.
Republicans have had difficulty getting widespread agreement on an approach to health care and immigration legislation. There’s also a split over military matters. At Heritage’s conservative policy conference on Tuesday, for example, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a Navy pilot, called for billions of dollars to be sent to Ukraine and proposed that the United States provide Ukraine with “lethal military aid” to fight Russia. He proposed Republicans send an “unmistakable message to Obama … a man clearly uncomfortable with accepting America’s natural and manifest role as a global superpower.”
But immediately preceding Bridenstine on the stage was Paul, who told the same audience that the United States needn’t “be involved in every war and every skirmish” and should allow much of the war against Islamic extremists to be “fought by the Middle East.” He criticized U.S. interventions in both Libya and Iraq.
The foreign policy split will recur for Republicans, but trade will likely split them first. Many, if not most, Democrats, backed by labor unions, will oppose trade-promotion authority, which will require a large number of Republicans to support the legislation. Yet roughly 30 House Republicans are already on record opposing the trade legislation, and Curtis Ellis, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s anti-trade meeting, predicted a “significant minority” would end up in opposition.
That’s particularly so if the uglier sentiments expressed at Tuesday’s anti-trade gathering gain traction. Conservative Frank Gaffney alleged that the perpetrators of last week’s massacre in Paris had the same agenda as the Obama administration: to “impose Sharia law worldwide, including in this country.” The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios agreed that Obama would use trade pacts “to bolster the practitioners of Sharia [and]some Republicans want to help the president do so.”
Standing against such rot would be noble, but it would require Republican lawmakers who howl about Obama the usurper to concede that strong presidential power can be a good thing.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.