By Dave Clarke and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans on Friday asked the Justice Department to weigh in on the controversial recess appointments President Barack Obama made to install appointees to politically sensitive jobs overseeing consumer lending and the labor force.
Obama on Wednesday announced that he would bypass Congress to appoint Richard Cordray in charge of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and to fill three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. The nominees were all facing drawn-out Republican opposition.
Republicans said the appointments were unprecedented and portrayed them as possibly illegal because they were made while the Senate was still technically in session.
Top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Charles Grassley, and House of Representatives Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him whether the White House had consulted the Justice Department and what advice it might have given to justify the appointments.
They also questioned whether the appointments were constitutional.
"The Justice Department and the White House owe it to the American people to provide a clear understanding of the process that transpired and the rationale it used to circumvent the checks and balances promised by the Constitution," Grassley said.
The letters sent by Grassley and Bachus requested responses by January 20.
The White House said it made the appointments because Republicans are using procedural tactics to block the Democratic president's nominees.
Administration officials have not detailed the Justice Department's role in the decision.
Cordray's appointment followed months of rancorous debate over the new consumer bureau, which was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law to police markets for products like credit cards and home loans.
Republicans contend it does not have enough congressional oversight and could constrain lending if the agency becomes overzealous. Democrats have championed it as a regulator who will stand up for consumers against unscrupulous lenders.
Last month Republicans blocked a vote on whether to confirm Cordray. They have demanded changes to the structure of the bureau, such as having its budget approved annually by Congress, before allowing a vote on any nominee to head the regulator.
Obama has also had trouble getting congressional approval for his picks to the NLRB. The board has been a target of Republicans who view it as a proxy of organized labor.
WHAT IS A RECESS?
The legal debate regarding Obama's appointments focuses on whether or not the Senate was in recess when he made them.
The president has the authority to place nominees into federal jobs that normally require the approval of the Senate if the chamber is on a recess. These appointees can generally serve for a shorter amount of time than if they had been confirmed by a Senate vote.
Republicans have required the Senate to technically stay in session to try to prevent Obama from making any recess appointments. They contend that because of these pro-forma sessions, no recess appointments can be made.
The White House has said that regardless of the pro-forma sessions, it believes the Senate is in recess because the chamber is not doing any work and senators are out of town.
In their letter, Senate Republicans argued this rationale flies in the face of past positions taken by the Justice Department dating back to 1921.
A legal challenge to the appointments is expected but it remains unclear who will take that step.
Also on Friday, 95 House Republicans wrote Obama expressing their anger at his decision, saying they "expect these appointments will be determined to be unconstitutional and invalidated by both the courts and the American people."
(Editing by Xavier Briand)