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Offset Recesses Cause Uncertainty, Heartburn

The offset recess calendars of the House and Senate claimed a casualty when the Senate scrapped its July Fourth break. The decision denies vulnerable incumbents an opportunity to be home with constituents and led to concern about what other recesses might be on the chopping block.

It might have been bound to happen, but the frustration has been evident for some time among lawmakers, with some contending offset schedules have made deal-making difficult.

“The fact that we’ve had split breaks is crazy to me. I’m new here, but it’s not helpful,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said.

The two chambers have worked around the issue for much of the year, but the Senate ultimately had to sacrifice its July Fourth break, bowing to pressure to at least appear to be addressing the looming debt limit crisis.

“Let’s face it, politically it’s not a smart thing to take off when we have things hanging over our heads,” said Johnson, a freshman who called for the Senate to stay in session to debate the budget and other issues related to the debt limit.

Members of the House were back home for their Fourth of July break last week and are scheduled for recess again the week of July 18.

Well aware that Senators were the ones to get the short end of the stick this time, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin suggested the House should shelve its next break to get a debt deal done.

“So we kind of see each other in passing,” the Illinois Democrat said on the floor last week, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced the Senate would be back the day after the holiday. “Well, we’ll both be together next week, and I hope we will stay here and get this job done.”

In an email, Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said, “As always, the House will be here if and when needed.”

If the House does stick around Washington, D.C., for more of this summer, that might not sit well with Members who feel they need more face time with the folks back home.

Rep. Joe Walsh, a GOP freshman whose suburban Chicago district will look vastly different next year because of redistricting, said the constituent work periods are crucial for him to stay in touch with voters. Walsh kept a busy schedule last week, marching in July Fourth parades and going to events such as Northrop Grumman Corp.’s “America Day” in Rolling Meadows, Ill.

In an interview, Walsh said that it’s “huge” for freshmen to go home as often as possible and that the House schedule allows them to do so.

“What happens is Republicans and Democrats go to D.C., they get elected, they think they’re kings, they end up staying out there a long time and really they don’t come home very much,” he said. “A schedule that enables us to be home for a full week every three weeks is really important; it keeps us in tune with what our districts are thinking.”

While aides note the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate would have a hard time finding agreement on issues even if they shared the same calendar, they acknowledge the different schedules have impeded progress.

The bipartisan debt limit talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden have been interrupted a handful of times because of conflicting calendars. Over the course of eight weeks, one of the chambers was in recess three of those weeks.

“I would say it’s not helpful,” Johnson said. “I’ve been over on the House side working with my Congressional colleagues from Wisconsin to try and address these problems. Because we control it, we need the House to pass that kind of spending discipline,” he said.

Senators were less than enthused about recess being interrupted.

“I think everyone would love to be back in their home district talking to real people rather than sit here in the Beltway,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D), who flies 12 hours to get back to Alaska.

Overall, 17 incumbent Democratic Senators are up for re-election next year. The recess weeks give them a chance to prep their campaigns for what might be a difficult electoral landscape.

Begich also said the staggered schedule has made work between the two chambers difficult.

“The Senate schedule’s pretty much what it’s been traditionally for years,” he said. “The House has this new schedule they’ve put together, which has created problems for the two bodies to work together.”

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.