Two weeks on, one week off in shorter 2011 House schedule

House Republicans on Wednesday unveiled a 2011 schedule that will keep lawmakers in the nation’s capital for shorter periods of time, allowing them to travel home more frequently.

The schedule represents a major change from how Democrats have run the lower chamber over the last four years.

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Under the new calendar, House members will have a cycle of being in session for two weeks in Washington and then spending the following week in their home districts.

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the new schedule would create “certainty” for members.

The House’s first day in the 112th Congress will be Jan. 5, well before President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Usually, when the president’s party controls Congress, there is a relatively light legislative schedule before that speech.

But with Republicans in control of the House next year, the plan is to hit the ground running next month. An exception to their two-weeks-in, one-week-out rotation will occur in January, when the House will be in session all month.

Instead of the normal target adjournment date of Sept. 29 (aimed to coincide with the end of the fiscal year), Cantor expects the House to be in until Dec. 8. In prior Congresses, targeted adjournment dates in odd-number years were rarely met and regularly extended into December.

Intent on winning back their majority, Democrats will be targeting many Republican freshmen in the new Congress. Politically, Republicans believe that allowing members to go home to their districts more will keep them in touch with the needs of constituents and increase their chances of reelection in 2012.

Cantor noted that the House would meet for about the same number of days as in previous odd-numbered years, but would see its weeks in session decline from previous years by 11 percent. Cantor said the schedule will lower member travel expenses, which are paid by taxpayers.

“In total, it contains 123 days and 32 weeks of session,” Cantor said in a letter to members that was released to the media. “While the number of days in session is consistent with first sessions in years past, the number of weeks in session represents an 11 percent drop, resulting in less travel for members and potential savings to the Member’s Representational Allowance.”

Democrats countered Cantor’s announcement by pointing out that the House was in session for 152 days in 2007 and 148 days in 2009.

There will be a two-week recess in April, and the August recess will be scaled back to a little more than four weeks. The House is scheduled to adjourn Aug. 5 and return Sept. 7.

It is normal for the incoming majority party to put its imprint on the schedule. After winning control of the House in 2006, Democrats established five-day working weeks by scheduling votes Monday through Friday. Democrats subsequently scaled their workweeks back, especially in the election years of 2008 and 2010.

Cantor’s intention, as explained in his “Dear Colleague” letter, is for the House to consider bills for more time as part of an effort to “stress quality over quantity.”

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“Gone are congratulatory resolutions,” he said. “Post office namings will be handled on a less frequent basis.”

House Republicans also adopted changes to their internal rules for the 112th Congress at a closed-door meeting on Wednesday. Those changes will make it more difficult for members to create programs and take votes on “commemorative” bills.

Republicans retained their rule on limiting chairmen/ranking members to six years, but did not adopt any term limits for leadership lawmakers.

On days when the House is in session, votes should not occur later than 7 p.m., or 3 p.m. on the last day of the week.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said he is glad to “know what’s going on” in his schedule that will allow for him to make flights home on the last day of votes each week.

“As long as I can get out here and make votes, and as long as we get out by a certain time that I can make my flight home without having to wait until the next morning, then I’m fine,” Hunter said.

At least one member was concerned that the House is slated to be in business during the week of Memorial Day and July 4.

“I think [the new schedule] will give us an opportunity to be very productive. I do have some concerns with coming back on weeks of holidays. It’s going to make it more difficult. We’re in those weeks of the holidays, we’re out the week before,” Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said. Latham is a close friend of Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay (Mo.) was skeptical about being in session so often during January and February.

“Well, it’s different as far as the scheduling for January and February. Normally we are not here that much, but it seems as though the new majority intends on us doing quite a bit of committee work and quite a bit of floor votes, so I’ve never been one to shy away from an honest day’s work,” Clay said.

Transparency was a major theme in Cantor’s announcement.

Consistent with the House GOP’s “Pledge to America,” Cantor promised that legislation would be made available three days before a committee markup and three days prior to floor consideration.

“Taken together, these reforms will allow more time for quality consideration while increasing the House’s efficiency and guaranteeing the public’s right to know,” he said.

The House GOP Transition Team’s recommendation to post internal party rules online was also adopted as part of the new package to attain the same goal.

High-ranking leadership staff and members of the GOP Transition Team gathered input from Republicans and a few Democrats in their effort to amend internal rules and the legislative calendar.

Cantor told incoming GOP lawmakers on Tuesday of his “Cantor Rule” for the next Congress.

“This Congress is going to be about cutting spending, reining in government and reform. … Each day, I wake up with a guiding rule and a few questions that will help us further our goal of getting people back to work and returning this country to the land of opportunity, responsibility and success.

“We must ask ourselves, ‘Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it? More, why are we doing it?’ ” Cantor said, according to a leadership aide in the room.

This story was updated from an 11 a.m. version

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