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Republicans had been hoping to cripple the agencies, unpopular in conservative circles, by refusing to confirm appointments. The GOP maintained Wednesday that the president's move was unconstitutional because the Senate was in a pro forma session and not technically in recess, during which the president can make temporary appointments.

Obama defended the move in a speech in Ohio on Wednesday.

"When Congress refuses to act and as a result hurts our economy and puts people at risk, I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them," Obama said. "I have an obligation to act on behalf of the American people."