Politics

Trump Call to Curb August Recess Picks Up Steam

Republican senators seem eager to keep Democrats off campaign trail

President Donald Trump leaves the Senate Republican policy lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump did most of the talking Tuesday during a lunch-hour meeting with Senate Republicans, but lawmakers said he did not prod them to cancel their August recess. He did not have to. 

That’s because the idea appears to be gaining steam for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the large number of Democratic incumbents running for re-election could find themselves off the campaign trail and in Washington at a prime time for campaigning.

Echoing calls from his legislative affairs staff and allies in the Senate, Trump on Saturday tweet-declared that Congress should cancel its annual August recess unless it completes all government spending bills, adding a demand that “wall and border security” dollars must be included. He also called on the Senate to clear all of his outstanding nominations. Trump ended his Twitter balloon with this: “STAY!”

The president used part of his remarks behind closed doors Tuesday, which lasted about 45 minutes, to tout Republican accomplishments during his first 16 months in office, according to multiple GOP senators. He also offered them a preview of his campaign message for November’s midterm elections, saying he will tell voters they need to send more Republicans to Washington to help him enact more of his agenda.

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Trump plans to remind voters about the Republican tax law, Obama-era regulations they have nixed, and the revamping of the federal judiciary he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have overseen.

One GOP strategist who is working with incumbents and other candidates ahead of November’s elections said the president and senators were wise to focus a healthy part of their session on the midterms because “they aren’t going to get much passed at this point.”

But he also wants members to stick around in August to add to the list of tasks completed.

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“Part of that message is, beginning now, that we really have been doing things,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “None of us are satisfied. We want to do more.”

Senate GOP leaders are “considering” nixing the August break to work on the spending bills and nominations, said Sen. David Perdue, a Trump ally. “All things are on the table,” he said after the lunch-hour meeting.

Perdue earlier Tuesday was more definitive, saying flatly that McConnell is supportive of the Republican senators who want longer work weeks and a shorter August recess. The Georgia Republican, who is spearheading an effort to get more nominations and all 12 spending bills across the Senate floor before the end of the fiscal year, said he has spoken with McConnell twice this week and that the GOP leader is “very supportive."

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis indicated he supports Trump’s idea of a summer legislative session, saying, “President Trump’s a hard-charger. I want to work as hard as he wants us to work.” And one influential GOP chairman said the same.

“We might not have an August recess,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said, citing work on nominations and appropriations. The chamber has struggled to reach agreement on spending bills in recent years, but Trump contends he will not sign another massive omnibus measure like the one he reluctantly made law in March.

“We’ve been talking to the leader,” the Alabama Republican said, noting that finishing all 12 spending measures before the summer break would be a challenge. “We might stay to work to clear the calendar.”

And Shelby nodded to the political midterm math: 24 Democratic seats are in play, while only nine Republican ones are. An extended stay in Washington likely wouldn’t harm GOP senators facing re-election fights as much as it would Democrats.

Sticking around “might not be realistic for the Democrats,” Shelby said, “but it would be realistic for having a lot more seats.”

A key voice behind the scenes in convincing McConnell to back Trump, Perdue and those GOP members who agree with them is Marc Short. The White House legislative affairs director meets with senior lawmakers daily, and last week said “of course” White House officials want a working August if nominations and spending bills have yet to get floor time.

Senators emerged from the lunch meeting and described Trump’s demeanor as “very entertaining” and “engaging” and “extremely energetic.” Multiple GOP members said he dropped a series of one-liners and playfully jabbed at some in the room. But they declined to elaborate on the presidential humor.

Another item that did not come up was a disparaging comment White House communications aide Kelly Sadler made during an internal meeting last week about Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and his deteriorating health. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said the luncheon powwow was not the right setting to press Trump on the matter.

But GOP senators want to hear a public apology from Sadler, who has already talked to McCain’s daughter privately, according to a White House spokesperson. “Well, the person who said that, should apologize, and should apologize publicly,” McConnell told reporters after the lunch meeting ended.

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On the midterm election strategy, GOP senators described Trump’s message as “confident” and “optimistic.” Corker told reporters the president assured them he intends to “campaign vigorously” for his party’s incumbents and other candidates. And Rounds said Trump talked about the importance of “putting together the timing to make sure that your message is there.”

“We didn’t interrupt the president,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “We let him talk. And he talked for, I don’t know, 45 minutes about quite an array of subjects — everything from the economy, we talked a little bit about deregulation. … He talked a good bit about North Korea. He talked a good bit about Iran, a good bit about trade, a good bit about NAFTA.”

The Republican members did not get much time to ask Trump questions. There were just two, according to several senators, one from Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada on immigration and another from Sen. Lamar Alexander on the party’s accomplishments. 

“I hope the president heard from senators how critically important it is that he focus on the economy — especially the positive impact of tax reform — and national security, and holding red state Democrats accountable for opposing key parts of his agenda,” said Michael Steel, a former senior aide to then-House Speaker John A. Boehner and 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.

The president was not in an advice-seeking mood, multiple senators said.

Kennedy described the president’s remarks as “a very honest, unvarnished, ‘here’s-what-I’m-thinking’ speech.” But with no television cameras allowed inside the Senate’s ornate Mansfield Room, Trump checked some of his campaign trail theatrics at the door.

“I’ve seen his campaign rallies. … I wouldn’t call it a campaign rally,” he said. “I’d call it an honest assessment of where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

Jennifer Shutt and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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