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It's August, Do You Know Where Your Lawmakers Are?

Congress is usually on recess in August, though the Senate has stuck around a little longer — initially with the hope of passing health care legislation.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
Congress is usually on recess in August, though the Senate has stuck around a little longer — initially with the hope of passing health care legislation.

If you're in Washington, D.C., this week you might notice a lot of tourist traffic and not so much of the usual commuter traffic.

That is because it is August, the month when much of Washington officialdom gets out of town. Many others whose own work depends on those officials also leave, just for shorter periods.

It's called a recess, although members of Congress prefer the phrase "district work period." Call it what you like, it's a chunk of calendar. It's not all vacation though, as many of the members spend a lot of time on legislative business and meeting with constituents.

The House is gone for five weeks. The Senate is still in session this week, having shortened its recess in response to criticism of its slim volume of achievement this year. But they won't be back until after Labor Day.

But there isn't that much to occupy the Senate just now because the health care effort failed, and they are not ready to pass a budget resolution or raise the debt limit or approve the spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That limit will need to be raised soon or the federal government will run out of operating cash sometime this fall. That could lead to at least a temporary government shutdown.

The government could also shut down this fall if Congress does not pass the annual spending bills known as appropriations. Most observers expect both chambers to buckle down and pass the dozen spending bills they need to finish each year.

But at this point, the House has approved four of the dozen bills Congress must finish, the Senate none. They have until Oct. 1, although they can add extra innings by passing a stop-gap spending extension called a "continuing resolution" — a regular feature of the spending process in recent years.

One big reason the Congress has not kept up with the regular schedule for budget and appropriations is the enormous investment of session time to health care — the issue that ate the calendar. The House did pass a bill after an initial failure. The Senate got close, needing just one more vote to advance at least a "skinny repeal" version of their repeal-and-replace project. But in the end, late in July, they fell short.

President Trump reacted to that near-miss by demanding the Senate return to the issue immediately and try again. But the president did not offer any new ideas for achieving the consensus that has eluded Republicans in the Senate. Their leaders announced they were ready to move on to other issues, especially tax code overhaul.

At the same time, at least a few senators in each party have begun agitating for a new approach — or rather, an old approach. It is known as "regular order," and it was the alternative offered during the health care debate by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior figure who would later help end the whole exercise by voting against his party leadership's bill.

"Let's trust each other," McCain implored: Go back to having public hearings and a committee process where both parties got to participate.

Even before McCain's moving appeal on the Senate floor, several of his colleagues had been moving toward a version of his prescription. When the Senate returns in September, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has called for public hearings on shoring up the individual insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act. The ranking Democrat on that committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, has joined in promoting that idea.

It may not get much attention in September, when the debt ceiling, the budget and the spending bills will be dominating the House and Senate floors. But at least the hearings will offer an idea of what McCain, and others with memories, have been talking about.

And lacking another path forward, it might be the one way to fix the flaws of Obamacare.

One reason it might be necessary to take this path is that a renewed effort on health care would probably not be able to take advantage of the procedure known as reconciliation — which allows the Senate to approve certain issues with just a simple majority.

That matters because without that procedure, the Senate floor vote would be subject to a filibuster and require 60 votes to invoke cloture and proceed. This might be the reason the president began tweeting in recent days about changing the Senate rules requiring such supermajorities.

The president has been on this topic before, insisting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans get rid of the filibuster for legislation, just as they did for Supreme Court nominations. (Democrats, when last in the Senate majority, removed the filibuster for nominations other than the Supreme Court.)

McConnell and other senior Republicans have, however, flatly ruled out any changes to the filibuster rules as they apply to legislation.

Trump has suggested that if the shoe were on the other partisan foot, the Democrats would cheerfully eliminate the filibuster for legislation.

It should be noted that Democrats have been in the majority and had ample opportunity to do what the president wants Republicans to do. Democrats have in fact been in the majority in Senate for most of the president's lifetime (more than 50 of the past 71 years).

At times that Democratic majority has been quite large. In 1975, with one of their largest majorities in recent history, Democrats reduced the requirement for ending debate and moving to a vote from two-thirds of the Senate (67) to the current three-fifths (60).

At no time, however, have the Democrats attempted to eliminate the filibuster on legislation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.