The election-year August recess is a sacred institution in Congress, instituted initially because of the capital city’s unbearable summer weather, and maintained in the air-conditioning era to let members of Congress go home and pound the pavement in pursuit of reelection. On rare occasions it is canceled or curtailed because accomplishing some particular legislative goal or at least looking busy is considered as valuable politically as time back home.
At first blush this might seem to be the reason 16 Republican senators are urging Mitch McConnell to cancel this year’s August recess. And indeed, that’s what they are saying in a letter to their leader, as the Washington Post reports:
Senate Republicans note that there are just 67 working days left before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, although that counts Fridays, when the chamber is rarely in session.
“This leaves only 12 weeks to get 12 appropriations bills out of committee and consider them on the floor,” they wrote. “That alone is an impossible task. When combined with the crucial need to confirm more nominees, it is clear we do not have enough time.”
Now I’m not sure the Capitol building had even been built the last time Congress approved all 12 regular appropriations bills (an exaggeration, but only by degrees). Appropriations, or at least some of them, are almost always rolled into omnibus measures enacted just prior to the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, if not later (after a stopgap bill is enacted to keep the government operating). So the demand for 12 spending bills is a bit specious. It is true that the president has been pounding the Senate off and on for most of his presidency for not confirming his Judicial and Executive-branch nominees at the breakneck pace he would prefer. But like appropriations, that’s something the majority of the Senate typically works out by negotiating with the minority that invariably insists on the leisurely pace the chamber’s rules allow. It’s all part of standard politics.
There’s a different reason Republicans might want, and that McConnell might strongly consider, a recess cancellation: there are ten Democratic senators up this year from states carried by Donald Trump in 2016. There is just one Republican incumbent up this year from a state carried by Hillary Clinton. Yes, there are two other highly vulnerable GOP-held Senate seats at stake this fall, in Arizona and Tennessee. But they are held by lame ducks Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, respectively.
Keeping these Democratic senators off the campaign trail in August is a bankable asset for the GOP. And even if it doesn’t happen, the threat of making it happen will have value in negotiations with Democrats over items like appropriations and confirmations. As Slate’s Jim Newell observes:
The threat of canceling an August recess, even in a non-election year, can move mountains. Though any individual senator can slow the Senate — an institution built on consent — to a crawl if he or she so desires, the Senate can move quite quickly when the consent is there. That’s what happened after McConnell announced he would cancel the first two weeks of August recess last year. The Senate only ended up staying one additional week, and confirmed a host of additional nominees en bloc at the snap of the leader’s fingers.
Senators facing possible defeat can discover reservoirs of sweet reason in abundance if the alternative is being stuck in Washington — particularly if they aren’t getting much visible work done — as opponents savage them back home. McConnell knows this. He will probably count on its powerful effect as he mulls the August recess.