House Republicans, already divided on how to handle the federal budget, the debt limit, a rewrite of the tax code and more, have something new to tussle over: their summer vacation.
The decision announced Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to curtail that chamber’s recess by two weeks — from July 28 to Aug. 11 — to tackle unfinished business was not immediately embraced by House leaders.
Inside a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday morning, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) indicated that he intended to keep members around only so long as it might take them to act on the health-care bill pending in the Senate.
The case McCarthy made privately, and later publicly to reporters, was simple: The Senate still might have work to do, but the House has done plenty.
The House has passed its version of the health-care legislation, as well as major bills dismantling the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, scaling back federal regulatory powers and cracking down on illegal immigration. The chamber is also set to clear the annual military authorization bill by week’s end.
“We will continue to do our work here, and we hope the Senate continues to do their work as we move forward,” he said, waving a chart showing that 226 bills passed by the House this year await Senate action.
McConnell indicated Tuesday that the Senate needed the extra time to process the defense bill and clear a backlog of executive nominations that the House does not constitutionally act on.
But a handful of House Republicans — mostly conservative hard-liners — are pressing their leaders to keep working through August to tackle major pieces of unfinished business.
Those include the annual budget resolution, which is a key prerequisite for a tax-revamp bill expected to dominate the fall’s legislative agenda, as well as a necessary increase in the federal debt ceiling.
“If we don’t have results, then we shouldn’t have a recess,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
“We’ve done some good brush-clearing, but we’ve got major, major timber left to cut,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another Freedom Caucus member.
“Folks in the real world that have to go to a job every day don’t get to take a vacation if their job doesn’t get done,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who is lending support to the Freedom Caucus’s anti-recess push.
Their push is being met with sighs and eye rolls from some veteran Republican lawmakers, who have heard plenty of calls to cancel recess over the years — typically from the minority party — and are not eager to give up time spent with family and constituents without a clear legislative payoff.
“If there’s a chance of coming up with a work product that we could vote on, that would be worth it,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), a 32-year House veteran. “But if it’s just being done for optical purposes, it really hurts the families.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Tuesday that he’d prefer members spend their August honing their sales pitch for the tax bill.
Private talks are underway between GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and key White House players to set the parameters for the tax bill, with an eye toward drafting the complex legislation during the August break.
“I think August is a perfect opportunity for us to be listening and engaging with our constituents back home and building support for tax reform,” Brady said.
And then there is the health-care bill: Several Freedom Caucus members said Wednesday that they could not comprehend leaving Washington for the summer without finishing the bill, even as it languishes in the Senate with no clear path to passage there.
But the most divisive matters inside the GOP concern federal spending — the budget, the yearly appropriations bills and the debt limit, which in recent years have been resolved through negotiations with Democrats.
Senate Democrats can still filibuster spending bills and the debt limit, but conservatives are bristling at the prospect of letting Democrats dictate terms when Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House. They say taking action now on the fiscal matters, rather than against fall deadlines, would give the GOP more leverage.
Perhaps no House member has more at stake in the recess debate than Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who is standing in an Aug. 15 special election for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and would prefer to spend next month on the campaign trail — not in Washington.
Brooks, an outspoken Freedom Caucus member, did not join his compatriots at the Wednesday news conference, and he made clear in an interview Tuesday that he did not share their views on the virtues of a working summer.
“If there are important votes, I’m going to be here,” he said, but he added that he didn’t see the point of spending the recess working on fiscal bills that are unlikely to be resolved ahead of the relevant deadlines.
“I wish it wasn’t that way, but historically that’s the way it’s been, and I don’t see any kind of session in August that going to change when the bills are passed,” Brooks said.