While members of the House of Representatives are enjoying their normal full month of August recess, the Senate is being forced to work in the festering hot swamp that is Washington DC.
GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eliminated the time-honored August recess for all but one week despite 90-degree-plus temperatures and drenching humidity and the annoyance of Democrats who would prefer to be home to campaign.
McConnell wants to use the extra floor time in August to press senators to confirm pending judicial nominees, make progress on appropriations bills and set the stage for Brett Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court.
There is a political reason, too. McConnell is forcing Senate Democrats to stay in DC so they can’t campaign in their home states for the November election. It’s another savvy move by the seasoned Senate leader in this lopsided year where the Senate map strongly favors Republicans. Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats this November, while Republicans only need to defend nine seats.
All 26 of those Democrats would much rather be back in their states solidifying their electoral support and raising money to build momentum for the general election. In particular, Democratic incumbents in Montana, Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota are feeling especially constrained running for re-election in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.
McConnell’s tactic will build momentum for a busy fall congressional schedule. Republican Leaders in the House and the Senate are looking to avoid a government shutdown and both chambers are ahead of schedule in passing FY19 appropriations bills. The Senate has passed seven of 12 appropriations bills, while the House has passed six. This is the best progress made on the appropriations front since 2000.
With the Senate in town, Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh can meet with senators in August and lay the groundwork for a relatively quick nomination process in September.
Democrats are trying to slow confirmation by insisting on seeing the millions of pages of documents Kavanaugh wrote during his time in the George W. Bush White House, but the delay tactic could come at their own peril. Many pundits believe the closer the Kavanaugh confirmation vote is to the November election, the better it is for Republicans to motivate their political base. Democrats will have to decide between an all-out political fight with a slim chance of blocking Kavanaugh versus getting the vote over with in September.
One more major item on the fall legislative schedule will likely be on a provision dubbed “TaxCut 2.0.” Republicans are trying to set a trap for Democrats by bringing up legislation that will permanently extend the individual tax cuts passed last December, which will expire in five years. Corporate tax cuts were all made permanent. Republicans want to get vulnerable Democrats on record on taxes close to the election. There also is a potential trap for Republicans who would be voting to deepen the federal deficit and remind voters about the tax cut, which hasn’t been as widely popular as GOP advocates predicted – or hoped.
A wild card McConnell cannot control is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller will do before the November election. His team is engaged now in a high-profile trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and conducting ongoing negotiations to schedule an interview with the sitting President.
One possibility is Trump’s team declines Mueller’s terms for a face-to-face interview and Mueller follows through on his threat to subpoena Trump. The subpoena could trigger a court case by Team Trump challenging whether a sitting President can be compelled to testify. Depending on timing, questions surrounding a presidential subpoena could engulf the Kavanaugh nomination in the Senate because of his previous defense of expansive presidential powers, his reflections on the role of special prosecutors and the reality he could be sitting on the Supreme Court when and if the case gets that far.
Mueller is not politically tone deaf, so he may cut off any public actions on the Russian meddling investigation after Labor Day. However, it is unlikely he will wrap up the investigation before the November election.
If you can believe Trump tweets, indictments are possible for members of his family in connection with the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Trump has now acknowledged was scheduled to get dirt on his opponent from Russian sources. That could scramble McConnell’s well-laid legislative schedule, adding to the irritation of his Senate colleagues who spent their summer recess tied to their desks in DC.
Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.