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Is Shorter August Recess Prelude to Deals?

Health care, nominations will go long way to determining path

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday the Senate would postpone its annual August recess by two weeks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday the Senate would postpone its annual August recess by two weeks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has announced a truncated August recess, but the new schedule might just be the opening bid in a complex negotiation with Democratic leaders over the terms of debate on executive and judicial nominees, as well as big-ticket legislative items. 

In his statement announcing the delay, McConnell said the chamber would work on the fiscal 2018 authorization bill for the Defense Department and “the backlog of critical nominations that have been mindlessly stalled by Democrats.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York has pushed back on such criticism, arguing the White House got off to a slow and sloppy start to the confirmation process. He also said on the Senate floor after McConnell’s announcement that the Kentucky Republican could have gotten more nominees through the chamber if he had different priorities.

“I’d remind my colleagues that it’s the majority leader who has the power to put nominees on the floor. In the Department of Defense, we have been asked about three nominees,” Schumer said. “Leader McConnell had the power to put them on the floor instead of this judge from Idaho, instead of the nominee from OMB, and instead of the ambassador to Japan tomorrow, if he chose. His choice,” he said of Judge David Nye, set to be confirmed Wednesday, Neomi Rao to be director of the Office of Management and Budget’s regulatory office, who was confirmed Monday, and William Hagerty to be envoy to Japan. 

Some outstanding nominees are controversial — Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois has already announced an intent to object to the choice of Steven Bradbury to be general counsel for the Transportation Department.

Most of the pending nominees, though, did not author memos providing legal justification for “enhanced interrogation” tactics, as Bradbury did during his time at the Justice Department in the administration of George W. Bush. 

Chamber dynamics

It might take more than a couple of extra weeks in Washington, D.C., to alter the chamber’s dynamics. 

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Tuesday that he expected an updated health care discussion draft to be released Thursday, with the expectation of a vote on a motion to proceed to the health care reconciliation package next Tuesday.

The measure, compiled without public hearings and mired with dismal public approval ratings, isn’t likely to motivate senators to work more efficiently.

The question may be what happens if the health care debate subsides, after Senate action — or inaction. At that point, Schumer could be in a better position to negotiate shorter time agreements with McConnell on nominations or other legislation.

McConnell mentioned the defense policy bill, which has generally been bipartisan but could be tricky this year without a broad agreement on spending priorities. Other potential agenda items include Food and Drug Administration user fees and a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.

There also could be action on raising the debt limit.

Senators will now have to cancel official congressional delegation trips and other August travel to accommodate the extended schedule, which is usually an incentive for lawmakers to finish up their work more quickly.

When not traveling overseas, senators generally spend recess periods in their home states meeting with constituents, as well as working on the business of fundraising.

Among the senators revising their calendars is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said he would have to change a scheduled trip to Israel.

Armed Services Chairman John McCain could be among the senators with the most hectic schedules if, in fact, the defense bill gets an opportunity for floor debate before the recess.

“None of it matters. We got to get our work done,” the Arizona Republican said. 

Early doubters

Shortly before McConnell’s office announced the intent to change the schedule, senior lawmakers were expressing their doubts that it would happen.

“I think it’s hard enough to get members here on Friday, let alone in August,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the vice chairman of the Republican Conference said.

At least one veteran Republican had a novel plan for staffing up to stay in session.

“If I were McConnell, I’d hire twice the number of people and stay in session 24 hours every time there’s a filibuster on a nominee,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said, adding that the size of the floor staff and parliamentarian’s office, for instance, could be increased to deal with all-day and night sessions. “There ought to be a commitment for Republicans to deliver on the promises we’ve made.”

The move to stay into August does not ensure legislative success, however.

Grassley recalled how he was in the minority party back when Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, stalled the start of the August recess amid debate over the effort to overhaul the health care system led by then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

“In [1994], we stayed in session two weeks in August. Mitchell kept us in, and we didn’t accomplish anything,” Grassley said. “So, I’m hoping for better this time.”

But like many Republicans, he expressed support for the adjustment.

“I think a five week summer break is too long to begin with, even if we had a very productive year so far, it would still be too long,” the Iowa Republican said.

Lindsey McPherson, Andy Van Wye and Joe Williams contributed to this report.