Lawmakers set to leave Washington early to get on the campaign trail

Congress is poised to recess at the end of next week as vulnerable incumbents have convinced their leaders that their time is better spent at home campaigning than in Washington.

Having just returned from a five-week recess, the “Hello, I Must Be Going” strategy is not without risks, or controversy. Some members want to stay deep into September to pass lingering legislation, such as the farm bill. 

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However, four Democratic senators are in danger of losing their seats, giving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a strong incentive to finish business early. 

While Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) are eager to get back home to meet with voters, others want Congress to stay in session longer. 

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) want to pass their bill that would make it easier for struggling homeowners to refinance their mortgages. 

“I’m for staying and whatever it takes to get it done, because we don’t know whether interest rates will rise next week, two weeks from now, a month from now,” Menendez told reporters Monday, warning that if the Senate recesses before taking action on his bill, “we will have eliminated the possibility for millions of families in the country to refinance.”

Reid, who is protecting a thin majority, declared on the Senate floor Monday that this month’s schedule would be “very short and compact,” but did not say precisely when senators would leave town. 

A Democratic aide said offices have been alerted unofficially that they would recess by Sept. 21. Reid has declined to set a date publicly to give himself more flexibility and keep GOP critics in the dark.

A spokesman for Reid did not respond to a request for comment. 

The timing of the recess depends on whether House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can round up enough Republican votes to pass a stopgap measuring funding government through the end of the year. 

The House is scheduled to leave for recess at the end of next week and return for a few more days in October. It would be difficult to lure House members back to town if they have already passed continuing resolution (CR) legislation to keep the government operating into 2013. 

“Once the CR is voted on, it’s hard to keep people around,” said a senior Republican aide. 

The stakes are high for the new House majority, which is expected to lose seats, but not enough for Democrats to recapture the Speaker’s gavel. Undeterred, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has expressed confidence that Democrats will pick up the 25 seats they need to run the lower chamber next year. 

Democratic senators in tough races did not attend their party’s convention in Charlotte or spent as little time there as possible, preferring to maximize their time stumping for votes. 

McCaskill and Tester skipped the convention, while Nelson stopped by just long enough to give a few interviews and attend a fundraiser. 

“Being in Washington and taking message votes that don’t mean anything is less desirable than being home where the voters are,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist. “There’s a huge difference. There’s nothing like direct contact with voters and constituents when you’re up for reelection. Being stuck in Washington and taking meaningless votes doesn’t do too much to help anyone.”

McCaskill told a union-organized rally last week that she’s “not taking any naps” and warned supporters in Springfield, Mo., that her race would be close, according to Bloomberg News. 

Brown attended an event at a United Auto Workers hall Saturday to celebrate the anniversary of the Chevy Cruze, which is produced in Lordstown, Ohio. 

“There’s a very stark division of opinion between those who think there’s nothing remaining for Congress to do but pass a continuing resolution and people who feel they have to work until the first of October although there are no regular appropriations bills. They need to show they’re doing their job,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who has served as scholar-in-residence in the Senate.  

Some lawmakers want Congress to say in session as long as necessary to complete action on a multiyear farm bill. 

“I would encourage the leadership to do whatever necessary to pass a farm bill. It’s critical to America and critical to the world,” said retiring Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is up for reelection, is urging leaders not to adjourn before acting on a long-term farm bill. She will hold a conference call Tuesday to discuss the “urgent need” to pass a new farm measure before the current law expires at the end of the month. 

Stabenow will also attend a rally of farmers at the Capitol on Wednesday demanding immediate action on the farm bill. But political analysts give the massive bill, which costs nearly $1 trillion over a decade, little chance of passing because of opposition from conservatives in the House. 

Democrats believe House Republican leaders will not pass a multiyear farm bill before Election Day. They appear just as happy as Senate Democratic leaders to give rank-and-file colleagues more time at home to defend their seats.