More work on Sundays makes senators ‘cranky’

It’s happening more than it used to

As they make a final sprint on infrastructure, senators are resigned to weekend work. “If it means that I have to work through the weekends, I will work through the weekends,” says Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who worked with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on the bipartisan package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
As they make a final sprint on infrastructure, senators are resigned to weekend work. “If it means that I have to work through the weekends, I will work through the weekends,” says Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who worked with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on the bipartisan package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 4, 2021 at 11:37am

The Senate is not known for working Sundays — heck, it hardly works on Fridays.

But over the past couple decades, the business of the chamber has spilled over into the day of traditional Christian rest more than usual, which is enough to stir up some feelings.

“It makes me a cranky senator,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, summing up the general mood this week as the chamber hurtles toward a tantalizing August recess.

“But I signed up for this job,” she added quickly. “If it means that I have to work through the weekends, I will work through the weekends — and gladly so — because I want to get an infrastructure bill done.”

Senators worked 13 Sunday sessions between 1981 and 2000, tackling a lot of money matters and budget agreement showdowns, according to Senate records. That number has jumped to close to two dozen since 2001, and this weekend could add another.

“We’re going to stay here, including weekends, to get the job done,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer warned Tuesday, as an infrastructure deal and a reconciliation package hang in the balance.

The Sunday sessions (and other threats to keep the Senate in town) have been wielded in a carrot-and-stick fashion to deprive senators of home visits, forcing them to wrap up tricky bills before they can leave.

Of course, it’s not just the senators themselves who are caught working on Sundays when the chamber remains in session. All manner of people get conscripted, from floor and gallery staff to those working in the Senate dining operations and journalists who cover the action.   

It’s enough to make everyone a little grumpy, though staffers and lawmakers generally said the blow of weekend work can be softened if Congress is working together to get substantive lawmaking done. 

Despite being in more Sundays, the Senate has been in slightly fewer Saturdays in the past two decades, Senate records show. It was in session on 35 Saturdays between 2001 and the present, but stuck around on 44 Saturdays in the previous two-decade time period. Some of those Saturdays were late-Friday night sessions that bled into the weekend.  

The Senate records date back to at least the 1960s, and cover weekend sessions, with the caveat that “additional Sunday sessions may have occurred for which no records have been found.” 

For some members of the Senate, it can cut into their faith work. Take Sen. Raphael Warnock, a pastor who returns home many Sundays to preach at the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church. But the Georgia Democrat said he tries to keep things in perspective.

“The thing about weekends is different people worship on different days. For my Jewish friends, their Sabbath begins on Friday night and goes to Saturday night,” Warnock said. “So I don't know that it’s any worse … if it’s a Saturday or Sunday. I’m here to do my job, and whatever day we have to be here, I’m going to be here.”

For Sen. Kevin Cramer, it all comes down to scheduled rest. From a theological standpoint, “I think God had a really good idea of resting on the seventh day,” said the North Dakota Republican.

From a practical standpoint, “I don’t have an objection to working on a Sunday afternoon any more than I’d have an objection to working on a Monday afternoon we were scheduled to not be here,” he added.

The House has also been known to pop in on weekends, though it’s not worked much more in the last couple of decades, with 29 Saturdays and Sundays, down from 33 between 1981 and 2000. 

House records compiled by the Office of the Historian stretch back to the 18th century, when Saturday work was relatively common thanks to compressed stretches in Washington in an age before air travel. The count includes legislative weekend days, but excludes special sessions and any all-nighters spilling over from a Friday. 

Weekends work?

In 1995, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was at work on a New Year’s Eve Sunday, signaling that congressional Republicans had had enough of the government shutdown standoff with President Bill Clinton. The two sides had traded off rejecting each others’ proposals and vowed to take off Monday before resuming consideration that Tuesday. 

“We ought to end this,” the Kansas Republican said on Dec. 31, 1995. “I mean, it's gotten to the point where it’s a little ridiculous, as far as this senator is concerned.”

A more recent Senate Sunday work occurrence was a protracted December work period in 2009, where Democrats managed to get a health care overhaul known as Obamacare through Congress in a three-Sunday, 25-day marathon session that ended on Christmas Eve. 

No one likes working weekends, but Sen. Ben Ray Luján said if members were to stick around for longer periods at the Capitol and then take longer breaks back in their states, like they used to long ago, they may be able to get more done. 

“It's a chance for you to get together with other colleagues, for you to still work together, maybe even grab a bite together, maybe go to church together, and also solve problems with one another,” the New Mexico Democrat said. “There's something important about being together.”

But all that togetherness has its limits, and as Schumer’s vow to send the House an infrastructure bill and a budget resolution bumps up against the scheduled start of August recess, there’s one sure thing to make lawmakers embrace working weekends — getting out of town.

“I think working on a Saturday afternoon to shorten a week by a day makes all the sense in the world,” Cramer said. “If that gets me home a day earlier, I’m happy to make that sacrifice.”