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Senate May Limit July Fourth Recess

With a pair of oddly timed presidential nominating conventions and the need to move quickly on must-do authorizations of key federal programs, some of the sacred cows of the Congressional calendar may be sacrificed next year.

Senate leaders are already planning for the chamber to make an earlier-than-usual return to business in mid-January, discussing the possible elimination of the weeklong July Fourth recess and weighing a late-summer recess that would last almost seven weeks, beginning in mid-July and ending after Labor Day.

None of the details has been finalized, but GOP leaders in both chambers — while trying to hammer out the deals that will finally bring the first session to a close — have begun to think about the framework for the second session of the 108th Congress.

The most perplexing issue is how to get enough work done (particularly the appropriations bills in the methodical Senate) before adjourning for the August recess, which will be bookended by the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions.

“We haven’t decided how much time we’re going to take in the middle of the summer,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said this week.

“It’s all still under discussion,” echoed Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

For a combination of reasons — partly financial and partly to avoid being overshadowed by the mid-August 2004 Summer Olympics — Democrats have scheduled their convention for July 26-29 and the Republicans for Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

That means the House and Senate must adjourn no later than July 22 or 23 to give Democratic Members, their families and staffs enough time to travel to Boston for the weekend festivities leading up to their convention.

With the GOP scheduling its convention in New York so late — maximizing the emotional connection to the three-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — few Members or aides expect either chamber to reconvene in early August after the Democratic convention. That would stretch the usual five-week August recess for the House by a full week, and extend the usual four-week recess for the Senate by two weeks.

But the break is likely to be even longer, given that Labor Day falls later than usual next year, Sept. 6.

One possibility that has been floated would be to eliminate, or drastically curtail, the July 4 recess, which usually lasts at least a week. With the holiday falling on a Sunday next year, some have talked about giving the Senate just a day or two off, making it only a long weekend.

“Because the Democratic convention is so early, we haven’t decided,” Frist said of the July 4 break. Acknowledging the likely disappointment at losing the traditional break, Frist said there definitely would be some break, and only the length was at issue. “We will have July 4 recess,” he said.

Some Members were already recoiling at the idea.

“It would not be well-received,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. “Everybody wants their Fourth of July break.”

The problem is likely to be much less acute in the House, where tight rules of debate have given GOP leaders hopes that they won’t have to modify their schedule too much. “We’re going to take into account these various events,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who is responsible for crafting the floor schedule.

Grella noted that the House has more “legislative agility” that makes the cramped schedule “less of an issue on our side.”

The Senate talks so far have primarily been between Frist and McConnell. Democrats have not yet joined in the talks.

“We haven’t had any discussions yet,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said about the 2004 schedule, adding that there was a “passing reference” made Wednesday morning at the White House meeting with Congressional leaders to the schedules of the two conventions next summer.

McConnell declined to talk about specific ideas for the schedule, but said there was a “recognition of the obvious” that a presidential election year would mean some scheduling snafus.

“There’s no question we will have fewer legislative days,” he said, adding that leadership is working to properly “apportion” the most important issues into the cramped schedule. “Beyond that,” he said of the potential issues of an early start and trimmed July 4 break, “I’m just not prepared to go there.”

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) noted all the scheduling issues for next year would be finalized at a Senate GOP leadership retreat in the first week of December.

Frist declined to specify when he would be calling the Senate back into session next year. “Probably not too early,” he said. “We’ve got to give people a break.”

Even though there likely won’t be leftover appropriations bills, as there were at the start of the 108th Congress, leading to a full January of work for the Senate, Senators in both parties are expecting to get to work at some point before President Bush gives his State of the Union speech in late January.

However, the Senate in particular will need that extra time to accommodate what is expected to be a weeks-long debate over reauthorization of the 1996 “Welfare to Work” bill and a mammoth highway funding measure. Legislative snags prevented Senate GOP leaders from adding those bills to their accomplishments this year, but they have promised to take both up as soon as they return next year.

Democrats plan no arguments with a start date in early or mid-January. “We would anticipate that,” Daschle said, adding that Democrats will use the opportunity to push reauthorization of a critical issue of their own, Head Start.

It’s unclear whether the House will join the Senate in coming back early, before the State of the Union, to get started on its work. Grella said the schedule is close to being finalized, but, he added, “We’re not going to part with it quite yet.”

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will be shepherding the welfare bill through the chamber, said he has been pushing GOP leaders to get to work earlier in January to give his contentious bill enough floor time.

“It’s normal not to do a whole lot around here before the president speaks,” Grassley said of the State of the Union, “but I don’t see how we have that luxury next year.”

In addition to the highway and welfare measures, the House and Senate need to craft and pass a budget resolution during March, in order to make the official April 15 deadline, as well as to ensure they have an adequate amount of time to consider the 13 fiscal 2005 spending bills during the summer.

Indeed, one senior GOP leadership aide said an accelerated January schedule is necessary to put Congress on track to finish appropriations bills closer to the end of the federal government’s fiscal year — Sept. 30.

Delays on appropriations deals have prevented Congress from leaving town in October, as they traditionally have, for the past several years, and GOP leaders would like to give their candidates a chance to campaign for re-election next fall rather than staying in Washington for spending bill votes.

“If we work the whole month of January, we might actually get out of here on Oct. 1,” an optimistic Grassley said.

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