Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced to his members Tuesday that he’s canceling the first two weeks of the August recess to plow through a pile of undone business, including passing health care reform, a debt-ceiling increase, the Department of Defense authorization bill, and a Food and Drug Administration user authorization bill.
It’s easy to see why McConnell decided to push back the recess. For one thing, the rowdy town hall meetings in some senators’ home states last week were probably unpleasant enough to convince anyone that August in Washington is totally underrated. Two more weeks in the swamp? Great!
But McConnell was also facing the annual July chorus of demands to stay in town through the August recess to pass “something important.” But this year, the no-recess brigade was led by McConnell’s own rank and file, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, not to mention President Donald Trump, who mean-tweeted directly at the leader Monday.
I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
When he made the call Tuesday, McConnell blamed Democrats for the need to work through the first part of the recess, pointing to the “unprecedented level of obstruction” on the president’s nominations, which Schumer & Co. have indeed slowed almost to a halt by insisting on cloture votes, running out the clock, and generally being of little help to move the names along.
“We’re getting zero cooperation,” McConnell said.
To which you could almost hear the Democrats yelling in response, “But Merrick Garland!” pointing to McConnell’s refusal last year to give President Barack Obama’s final nominee to the Supreme Court even a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, a slight that Democrats aren’t close to forgiving.
Buckle up for a wild ride
The reality, of course, is that it’s not Democrats slowing down progress on the health care bill, but Republicans, whose wildly diverse state populations are leading them to have wildly diverse reactions to the legislation that came over from the House in June. More broadly, the hurdle to moving legislation through the Senate right now also has nothing to do with how many days they’re in session. Instead, it has everything to do with what the Senate is doing (or not doing) while they’re in session.
Tuesday was the Senate’s 100th day in session for 2017. In that time, they have held no hearings on the health care bill, and no days of formal debate. They have not yet worked through the other items on the to-do’s that McConnell presented, nor have they begun work on any of President Trump’s boldest promises — tax reform, a jobs package, an infrastructure package, immigration reform, or his big, beautiful wall on the southern border.
In the work that has gotten done on health care, Senate leaders have tried to get big, bold changes through a 52-vote chamber. The group of senators who wrote the underlying bill excluded more Republicans than it included, and of course, kept Democrats out of the process altogether — all on a bill that will affect every one of every senator’s constituents in one way or another. They’re expecting broad consensus from a diverse caucus and writing hugely consequential legislation with too few senators involved in the first place.
But it’s hard to see what delaying the recess is going to achieve if nothing is going to change in the underlying dynamics that are crippling progress in the chamber, from partisan infighting to the incredible distractions that are swallowing up the White House’s attention span and thus McConnell’s ability to get President Trump’s agenda through the chamber.
Instead of saying they’ll skip part of the recess, senators should roll up their sleeves for the next three weeks and face the disagreements we all know are waiting in the debt ceiling debate, health care reform and tax reform, for starters.
What most Americans work …
They could try a five-day work week on for size—they’ve only worked three full weeks so far in all of 2017. Those extra Fridays and Mondays would be a great time for say, a hearing on the health care bill, whenever it comes out.
Or they could tackle what they all seem to agree on — that the problems in the Obamacare marketplaces are real and getting worse. Strengthening the marketplaces, even in the short term, would give consumers a lifeline while Congress hammers out the rest of health care reform.
If the Senate started even informal floor debate now, they might actually get a vote on that sliver of health care reform passed and approved by the end of July.
But then senators should go home, hear from their constituents about how they feel about what has or hasn’t gotten done this year. They should keep their promises to take their kids on vacation. They should enjoy an entire day without responding to President Trump’s tweets and let their staffs do the same. And they should come back to Washington when they’re ready to solve problems, not just blame the other party for them.
It’s time to change the dynamic in Washington, not the calendar. So keep the recess, but please for the love of your backyard barbecues and your Big Green Egg, stop the legislative games. The Senate, and the country, will have much more to show for the effort in the end.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.