Senators are heading off for the August recess with a smoky, not bitter, taste in their mouths.
The second joint caucus meeting in the past month is this afternoon, with almost all 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans expected to attend. There is no “nuclear option” filibuster standoff or other institutional crisis that needs to be diffused. But there is a tasty barbecue buffet waiting to be tackled.
The Old Senate Chamber, where the clear-the-air meeting on executive nominees was held three weeks ago, is too fine a restored and historic venue for the feast. Instead, the brisket and beans are being laid out in the Russell Building’s ceremonial hearing room.
The idea of the gathering, which was also held just before the summer break a year ago, is to send off senators to their states with a sense that collegiality and bipartisanship has at least a theoretical chance of easing congressional life come the fall, when comity could be significantly tested by this year’s installment of the budget wars.
Unlike the days before so many past recesses, the schedule for the day is relatively straightforward and free of either suspense or policy histrionics.
Lunch will begin after the noon-time vote on whether to advance or derail the first appropriations bill to come before the Senate this year, which would provide a sequester-busting $55 billion for transportation construction projects, community development grants and housing assistance to the poor. Republican leaders look to have the 41 votes on their side necessary to stop the bill, which they want to do to help solidify their party’s fiscal austerity negotiating position for the fall.
That mission got a lot harder on Wednesday, however, when a much more austere companion spending bill in the House was abandoned in the face of bipartisan rejection. That prompted House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers to say it's time to abandon the sequester system’s deep cuts to domestic programs and negotiate an alternative with congressional Democrats and the White House.
The Senate soiree will end in plenty of time for the last piece of business before the break: confirmation of administration human rights adviser Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations. She will be the final beneficiary of the agreement to advance a collection of nominees this summer, including a full slate of National Labor Relations Board members, James Comey to run the FBI and B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The unusual sense of comity in advance of the five-week recess was evident from the moment the Senate convened this morning and moved to pay tribute to Dave Schiappa, the GOP’s senior floor staffer for the past dozen years. He's leaving after a 29-year career as a logistical and parliamentary Sherpa to become a lobbyist for the Duberstein Group.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow, that’s what I said to him, and it really is,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
“To the extent that we get anything done around here, it’s largely because of Dave,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “And to the extent that we’re not getting into shouting matches and food fights the rest of the time, well, that’s largely thanks to Dave too. He’s been the glue and the grease that keeps this place functioning.”