WASHINGTON (AP) — For all the talk of Washington gridlock, the three branches of government are asserting their powers this week, and sometimes surprising their closest observers.
The Supreme Court kept affirmative action alive on college campuses and cleared the way for gay married couples to get federal benefits. A compromise-crafting Senate passed major immigration legislation. And President Barack Obama issued long-awaited orders to combat climate change.
It’s possible these events will ultimately amount to little. The House might stifle the immigration bill, for instance. And the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to look hard at colleges’ consideration of race when recruiting students.
Still, the first week of summer proved that all facets of the federal government still pack punches, even in a capital riven by partisanship.
The Supreme Court decisions caused the biggest stirs. The justices infuriated conservative lawmakers by overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
At least as surprising was the decision on affirmative action, which some legal scholars had expected the Supreme Court to curtail severely. The NAACP said it was “pleased that the court chose to affirm that there is a place for race in university admissions.”
Others, however, said affirmative action won little more than a reprieve, because new waves of legal challenges to race-conscious admissions seem imminent. And later, the NAACP and other liberal groups expressed dismay at another Supreme Court ruling, which nullified key elements of the Voting Rights Act.
Obama, meanwhile, acknowledged that Congress can reach no agreements on climate change, and announced his own plans to limit heat-trapping gases from coal-fired power plants. Using executive powers, the president laid out the first-ever federal regulations on carbon dioxide emitted by existing power plants, which is partly blamed for global warming and rising sea levels.
Republicans and numerous business groups immediately denounced him. It was a reminder — as if anyone needed it — of why it’s hard for the federal government to take major steps on the environment and many other fields.
“It is astonishing that President Obama is unilaterally imposing new regulations that will cost jobs and increase energy prices,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Environmental groups welcomed the president’s moves, even as they called them long overdue. Environmental activists have grown increasingly frustrated since 2009 as they watched Obama place health care, Wall Street reform, immigration and other priorities ahead of curbing greenhouse gases.
The 2009-2010 congressional struggle to enact Obama’s health care overhaul exacerbated Washington’s already-intense partisanship. By late 2010 — when tea party-backed Republicans regained control of the House — antagonism between the parties grew so heated that once-routine tasks became major chores.
Since then in fact, some of Congress’ most consequential actions essentially resulted from the inability to agree on anything. Decision-by-indecision became Washington’s new operating method.
In 2011, Senate Republicans devised a strategy that effectively washed Congress’ hands of any role in raising the federal debt limit.
Then, when lawmakers struggled for bipartisan spending agreements, they tried to jump-start negotiations by establishing severe national consequences if talks ultimately failed. The talks failed nonetheless, and the once unthinkable consequences — the “fiscal cliff” tax hikes and “sequestration” spending cuts — became law this year.
Not terribly long ago, Democrats and Republicans reached agreements to enact budgets, raise the debt limit, pass farm bills and do hundreds of other tasks. Now, bipartisan accords on almost anything will turn heads.
“We have an historic opportunity here in the Senate,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said on the chamber floor Tuesday. He was speaking of the immigration bill that would tighten border security and grant pathways to citizenship for people here illegally.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” Durbin said. “A bipartisan bill! How about that?”
Some Americans, however, see bipartisanship as a betrayal of political principles.
“Primary Rubio!” someone shouted at a recent tea party rally at the Capitol. He was calling for a Republican primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican once seen as a tea party hero, and an author of the bipartisan Senate immigration plan.
The outbreak of robust government actions might not last. Congress is in recess next week, and many people expect a tough road for the immigration legislation in the Republican-controlled House when lawmakers return to Washington.
And Obama — already accused of not using his presidential powers to inspire enough fear and friendships to advance his agenda — may find his clout further reduced. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the president violated the Constitution when he bypassed the Senate to appoint three people to the National Labor Relations Board.
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.