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Obama Tells Congress He's Keeping His Czars

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OBAMA
AP

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama had a message for Congress Friday: his so-called "czars" aren't going anywhere.

The budget bill that passed Congress Thursday also included a provision to defund a number of White House czars -- the high-level presidential appointees whose ranks have swelled in recent decades as a means of skirting Senate confirmation hearings.

There is a long history of complaints about czars by whichever party does not occupy the White House at the time, but the advisers have become a particular target of the right wing during the Obama administration, and the 11th-hour budget deal eliminated his health care, climate, urban affairs and auto-industry czars.

But on Friday night, Obama declared that he intends to ignore that part of the budget legislation, issuing a relatively rare "signing statement" after he inked the budget deal in which he argued that the legislative effort to eliminate those positions was an unconstitutional infringement on the executive branch.

"The President has well-established authority to supervise and oversee the executive branch, and to obtain advice in furtherance of this supervisory authority," Obama wrote in a message to Congress. "The President also has the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities, and do so not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it.

"Legislative efforts that significantly impede the President's ability to exercise his supervisory and coordinating authorities or to obtain the views of the appropriate senior advisers violate the separation of powers," he added. "Therefore, the executive branch will construe [the law as to] not to abrogate these Presidential prerogatives."

Republicans were not impressed.

"It's not surprising that the White House, having bypassed Congress to empower these 'Czars' is objecting to eliminating them," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Obama also signaled that he thought Congress was treading too close to his authority on foreign policy and national security matters by again barring the use of federal funds to transfer prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison for terrorism suspects. But he stopped short of announcing that he would ignore that measure.

"We must have the ability to act swiftly and to have broad flexibility in conducting our negotiations with foreign countries," Obama wrote, adding that his administration already took great pains to keep Congress informed of activities at Gitmo.

He said doing more "would hinder the conduct of delicate negotiations with foreign countries and therefore the effort to conclude detainee transfers in accord with our national security."

This is not the first time the Obama White House has issued signing statements. Aides drafted similar responses when the president signed a military spending bill in January objecting to provisions that limited the executive branch's ability to close Gitmo.

Still, it's worth noting that the use of the tool stands in stark contrast to the position Obama took during the presidential campaign, when he criticized George W. Bush's use of signing statements and went so far as to suggest the practice violated basic constitutional law.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: When Congress offers you a bill, do you promise not to use presidential signings to get your way?

OBAMA: "Yes... This is part of the whole theory of George Bush that he can make laws as he is going along. I disagree with that. I taught the Constitution for 10 years. I believe in the Constitution and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We are not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress. All right?"