Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s colleagues were annoyed by the decision; even the most good-natured among them could reply only with black humor. Outside the weekly party lunches in the Capitol, a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch sarcastically said that he was “very excited” by the prospect of extended work in Washington. Standing next to him was Hatch, who replied with a joke. “Well, you may be; I’m not.”
Others took the news with less cheer. Passing by reporters, Sen. Dick Durbin said he was on his way to canceling reservations with his family. “We do have families,” he noted.
McConnell’s decision Tuesday to axe the August recess may have made him a little less popular in the Senate. But it will keep vulnerable Democratic senators away from the campaign trail for weeks, toiling away to vote on mundane spending bills.
And most significantly, it allows McConnell to burnish what he views as his longest-lasting legacy: confirming young conservative judges who will reshape the courts.
“It. is. about. the. judges.” tweeted Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who started the group Demand Justice to reverse McConnell’s success.
Controlling the slimmest of majorities, 51-49, McConnell’s strategy this year has been to avert divisive battles over bills to focus on something on which every Republican senator can agree. Not only may the judges strike conservative outcomes that Congress won’t, confirming them can also be done with the iron rule of a Senate majority, with only 50 votes and the vice president’s tie-breaking vote.
The White House has taken note. It marked Monday—President Trump’s 500th day in office—by touting the fact that he has confirmed the most circuit-court judges of any president in his first year.
“It’s necessary for us to be here in August and to do our work,” McConnell said at a press conference Tuesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said the rate of judicial confirmations belies McConnell's argument that Democratic opposition to Trump's nominees warrants shortening the summer break. "I've been on that committee since I came here," said Feinstein, who has served for 26 years in the Senate. "I've never seen judges go faster."
McConnell’s decision will also keep red-state Senate Democrats in Washington instead of back home wooing potential voters. In an interview, Sen. Joe Manchin joked that he’s going to have to bring people to Almost Heaven, the houseboat he lives in when Congress is in session.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would spend their August focused on advancing policies to curb the rising cost of insurance premiums.
“We Democrats welcome this additional time because it gives us the opportunity to address an issue that’s on the top of the mind of so many of the American people, and one that Republicans have badly mishandled up to this point: health care,” said Schumer.
House Republican leaders have given no indication that they will follow McConnell’s lead. They have no role in confirming the president’s nominees, and they want their Republican members, endangered in suburban districts across the country, out of the capital campaigning.
Trump has pressured McConnell and Republican senators to get rid of the filibuster rule that mandates a minimum of 60 votes for most major legislation. And in May, he urged the Senate to stay in Washington to pass a spending bill with funding for a wall along the southern border, a top campaign promise that he’s been unable to keep with Democratic senators blocking him.
“The Senate should get funding done before the August break, or NOT GO HOME. Wall and Border Security should be included,” tweeted Trump. “Also waiting for approval of almost 300 nominations, worst in history. Democrats are doing everything possible to obstruct, all they know how to do. STAY!”
On Tuesday, Schumer said Trump should stay in Washington with the Senate now working through most of August.
“Given the urgency of these weeks, we presume he won’t be jetting off to Bedminster or Mar-a-Lago, or spending countless hours on the golf course, given the pain his policies have caused the middle class, particularly on health care,” Schumer said.
After passing the annual defense authorization bill in the next week or so, Republicans in the Senate don’t have much of a legislative agenda for the rest of the year. Some have discussed doing more than passing some spending bills and confirming nominations. Sens. Ted Cruz and Lamar Alexander are passing around a survey and getting feedback from other Republican senators about what is possible.
“I think there are a great many things we can do this year,” said Cruz in an interview. “From additional tax cuts to making the individual tax cuts permanent, to meaningful health care reform, reducing premiums and addressing the failures of Obamacare, to building a wall.”
But the odds are against Republicans doing any of those things. They failed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare last year, and bipartisan negotiations on health care reform broke down earlier this year over a debate on abortion. “They treat Obamacare as theology,” Alexander said of Democrats. “They’re not willing to change a sentence of it, even if they disagree with it.”
And there is little chance of Republicans making permanent some of the decade-long, $1.5 trillion tax cut Congress passed in 2017. Republicans have campaigned on that legislation, and allowing red-state Democratic senators an opportunity to extend those tax cuts for the middle class would undermine their message.
When asked whether they would take up that effort in August, Hatch, the top member of the tax-writing Finance Committee, said, “Well, I haven’t heard that that’s going to be the case.”