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From Now Till Election, Congress to Make Itself Scarce

From Now Till Election, Congress to Make Itself Scarce

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 31, 2014

Never mind that this Congress is on track to becoming the least productive in modern history. By Friday, most lawmakers will be heading back to their home states and districts on a five-week recess, despite having plenty of items on their to-do list. They will return on Sept. 8 -- but only for a few weeks before heading out again until after the November midterms.

Welcome to the election year schedule.

The light program allows for the nation’s legislators to be among their constituents in the final weeks of the midterm campaign. On the one hand, that’s seems like a smart strategy: In an era of widespread anti-Washington sentiment, staying in the nation’s capital when voters are making up their minds could be a liability.

On the other hand, Congress’ approval ratings are notoriously low; lawmakers’ absence for the months of August and October (and a chunk of September) with domestic and global challenges facing the country could be viewed negatively as well.

Another aspect to the midterm year dynamic: While the legislative branch is out of town, President Obama alone will have access to the national microphone. This allows him to fill the vacuum by slamming Congress for, say, failing to pass a border aid package or filing a lawsuit against him. Of course, the president doesn’t get off scot-free -- he will be on the receiving end of political hits from Republicans on the campaign trail in their home states and districts.

The skimpy schedule means the Senate will be in crackdown mode for the two weeks and two days it is in session between now and Election Day, Majority Leader Harry Reid warned. “Everyone needs to know when we come back on Sept. 8 there will be no weekends off,” he said Thursday. “… There is so much to do and so little time to do it. We’ve not had a productive Congress. We can’t push everything back to the so-called lame-duck.”

(Reid often threatens weekend work, but it rarely happens. Senators typically arrive in Washington on Monday evenings and leave for their home states on Thursday afternoons. Rarely is the Senate in session on Fridays.)

When they convene in September, senators can expect to vote on a temporary spending bill before the end of the month, when the government will otherwise have run out of money. Reid also said the upper chamber would take up legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank (the renewal of which has been an issue of contention among some Republicans) as well as a measure approving Defense Department policies.

But that short work period will also be used to reprise election-year proposals aimed simply at motivating certain parts of the electorate. Reid said there would be votes on bills that have already failed in the chamber (but can be brought back up again), including one that would reverse the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and another that would increase the federal minimum wage.

The majority leader also said the Senate would take up a bill amending the Constitution to let Congress regulate campaign finance limits, an effort to overturn the Citizens United ruling and address outside spending that has become campaign fodder for Democrats.

The House is expected to be in session for just 10 days in September and two in October. Members will not return until Nov. 12.

The lower chamber faces a similar to-do list during the truncated session ahead, including addressing the Export-Import Bank and approving a temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. 

And after developments on Thursday, another challenge has been added: House GOP leaders had to pull from the floor a bill to approve funding for the border crisis after they failed to win enough support from conservatives. They will leave town without a vote, ensuring that action on the issue won’t happen until September, if at all. [Update: Republican leaders decided late Thursday to delay the recess by a day in order to possibly vote on the measure Friday.]

Thursday's failure to secure votes marked the first defeat for the new Republican leadership team assembled in the wake of Eric Cantor’s defeat in June. (The Virginia congressman officially left his post as majority leader this week, and will remain a rank-and-file member until the end of his term in January.)

On Wednesday, the House voted on party lines to pass legislation authorizing lawmakers to sue the president over his use of executive authority. The issue has become a campaign tool for Democrats, who have used it to bring in record fundraising hauls.

Congress did make some progress this week, however. The House on Wednesday night approved legislation for a $17 billion package of fixes for the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs. The Senate is expected to pass the bill before it leaves town. 

Both chambers typically recess for the month of August and the weeks leading up to Election Day. But this election-year session comes at a particularly challenging time, especially for Senate Democrats. The outcome of the election could move control of the chamber into Republican hands, or at least weaken the Democratic majority.

President Obama will also be away for part of next month. He will travel to Martha’s Vineyard to vacation with his family Aug. 9-24.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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