Forget the budget: House, Senate can’t even agree on recess

May 27, 2011

Republicans and Democrats face plenty of obstacles in their efforts to reach a bipartisan deal to cut the deficit and raise the debt limit. They disagree on taxes. They disagree on spending. They disagree on Medicare. They have opposing economic philosophies.

To all those hurdles, add another, unexpected one: the schedule.

Because Republicans imposed a new legislative calendar when they took control of the House in January — with longer workweeks and more frequent recess periods — the two chambers are often not in sync when it comes to being in or out of session.

That’s why the House is working this week while the Senate observes the traditional Memorial Day recess. The situation was reversed two weeks ago and will be again next week. And that’s making it difficult for leaders from both ends of the Capitol to get together with Vice President Biden for the budget talks he’s leading.

“One thing we’re working out is, on the scheduling, it is a little inconvenient — totally unintended — the House is out one week, the Senate is out another week,” Biden said after a meeting at the Capitol last week. “So we all agreed that we can’t just meet on the weeks only when the House and Senate are [both] in.”

As a compromise, Biden said that House participants in the talks will have to stay in Washington during one of the chamber’s upcoming recess weeks and that Senate negotiators will have to return the favor another week.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) made the same point after a brief budget meeting Thursday, much of it dedicated to figuring out the schedule.

“With the Senate going out next week and then the House is going to be out again after that, and the vice president has a trip — how do we get everything coordinated so all the work gets done within a reasonable time?” Kyl asked.

Beyond the budget negotiators, the conflicting schedules are also a headache for everyone in Washington — including lobbyists and poor, overworked reporters — who must monitor both chambers.

Congress is now in a stretch, from the first week of May through the second week of August, during which at least one chamber is in session every week. The next bicameral, thank-God-everyone-can-take-vacation recess isn’t until the week of Aug. 8, and that could slip if the two sides don’t reach a debt-limit deal.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced the revised schedule in December after soliciting feedback from members.

“Through much deliberation during the transition process, Members indicated the need to return home to listen to their constituents on a regular basis,” Cantor wrote to his colleagues before the new Congress began. “Accordingly, the schedule will reflect a guaranteed five-day constituent work week at least once each month for Members to visit with . . . constituent groups Monday through Friday in their district, rather than just on the weekends.”

The chamber works a full week more often, rather than the previous Tuesday-Thursday, with more certainty about the times of the first and last votes each week.

In past years, the House and Senate calendars didn’t match up exactly, but they were much closer than they are today. The new schedule might be inconvenient for some, but it appears popular among most House members.

“I think it’s a very logical and productive schedule,” said freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), adding that he didn’t mind being in session the week of Memorial Day as long as he could be in his district on Memorial Day.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said the schedule was “perfect” for him, because the certainty of it means he is more likely to make his flight home at the end of the week. And more frequent week-long recesses allow him more time to visit every corner of his massive state.

Similarly, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said the new schedule makes it easier for him to spend time in his district, though he would have liked to have preserved the Memorial Day recess. “I would think that’s the one flaw in an otherwise well-designed system,” he said.

Scoffing at the Senate is a bipartisan pastime in the House, and Sherman was dismissive of the idea that his chamber might have erred by not conforming its schedule to that of the other.

“I would hope,” Sherman said, “that the Senate would have the wisdom to match up with ours.”

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