Senate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up

The Senate is working through the August recess. Sort of.

Senators didn’t arrive in Washington for this week’s work until late in the day Wednesday and held their last votes of the week at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, adjourning a few hours later.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat, skipped the week altogether, as did seven Republican senators — not counting Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Another recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us MORE (R-Ariz.), who is away from Washington indefinitely while he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

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The poor attendance on the Republican side of the aisle did not sit well with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.), who has emphasized for weeks that the Senate would work through August to get its business done.

McConnell criticized his colleagues for skipping votes during a private meeting Thursday, warning it would be difficult to set up votes next week if so many Republican colleagues continue to miss work.

With nine Senate GOP absences on Wednesday and eight on Thursday, Senate Democrats held a majority of the votes in the chamber this week.

“He’s rightfully, I think, upset. I wasn’t at lunch, but I knew what he was going to say,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Two of the GOP senators who missed votes this week, Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeUtah group complains Mia Love should face criminal penalties for improper fundraising Senate approves 4B spending bill Overnight Health Care: Opioid legislation passes overwhelmingly | DOJ backs Cigna-Express Scripts merger | Senate passes ban on pharmacy gag clauses MORE (Utah) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTrump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' North Carolina governor: We saw ‘significant damage’ in eastern part of state GOP senator on allegation against Kavanaugh: 'Why on Earth' wasn't it discussed earlier? MORE (N.C.), had signed a letter to McConnell in May urging him to cancel the August recess.

“We, and the American people, expect Congress to work tirelessly to restore American greatness,” they wrote earlier this year.

But that was then — when the high average temperature in Washington was still in the 70s.

After months of nonstop work on repealing ObamaCare, passing tax reform, repealing Obama-era regulations and confirming 26 circuit court nominees, many senators are ready for a break from D.C.

This is especially true when the mercury is hovering around 90 degrees and the humidity is more than 50 percent.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Budowsky: Kavanaugh and the rights of women Key GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand MORE (R-Alaska) warned that she would be “grumpy” about having to come back to Washington in August, as she needs a long recess to visit as much of her massive state as possible.

“I’m going to be chairman of the cranky caucus,” she said when asked about the possibility that canceling August recess may become a new Senate precedent.

She said the travel requirement is much tougher for senators on the West Coast than those from other parts of the country.

But Murkowski, who has one of the longest commutes to the Senate, was at work on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Senate held only one hearing on Wednesday, and several of the hearings scheduled for Thursday morning were sparsely attended.

The Senate Judiciary Committee never had more than seven members present at its business meeting Thursday morning, which meant it didn’t have the quorum necessary to actually move business (which requires the presence of 9 members).

“I think we should have had more Republicans there,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin Graham GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Collins: Kavanaugh accuser should 'reconsider,' testify on Monday Grassley willing to send staff to California to speak with Kavanaugh accuser MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary panel, chuckled.

At the same time the Judiciary Committee was meeting, a hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee was similarly empty.

When a reporter looked into the room about a half hour after it started, there were six lawmakers present and what looked to be about 15 empty seats. 

Some senators, such as Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment More Dems come out in public opposition to Kavanaugh MORE (D-Md.), don’t think the Senate will even be in session for the entire month, betting that it could be out the week before Labor Day.

This all has some senators wondering if the highly anticipated cancelation of the August recess is more for show than substance.

“I think everyone knows we’re just marking time,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips Corker GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Grassley willing to send staff to California to speak with Kavanaugh accuser Corker blasts Trump's 'ready, fire, aim' trade policy MORE (R-Tenn.), who estimated that only about seven or eight senators were at the hearing his panel held Thursday morning. “This is all for show.”

But Corker, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, insisted he's "very happy to be here” in August because he knows his time in power is limited.

“I only have so much time left. There are hearings that I want to have,” he said, noting the Foreign Relations panel will have a NATO-Russia hearing next week.

Democrats were quick to criticize the schedule.

“If we’re going to work, let’s work. It’s not sort of working, it’s not working,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyWant to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches Situation in Yemen should lead us to return to a constitutional foreign policy Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war MORE (D-Conn.), who pointed out the abbreviated schedule. “It seems silly to drag folks back from the West Coast for two votes."

“Let’s come in on Monday and let’s vote until Friday,” he said.

“I’m not so sure the taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely to fly us back. I'm basically here for 24 hours, and it took me 24 hours to get here,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterTrump Jr. campaign event looks for new venue after Montana restaurant declines to host CBS Poll: Missouri, Montana Senate races in dead heats Dems play waiting game with Collins and Murkowski MORE (D-Mont.).

Senate GOP leadership aides, however, vigorously disputed that it was a light week in the Senate.

They pointed to the confirmation of Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. and Julius Ness Richardson to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and an agreement to begin debate on a bill funding the departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services, which often waits until the end of the year.

“Two circuit court judges and an appropriations bill? That’s not a light week. Next week we’re doing the two biggest appropriations bills there are. That’s not a light week,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.

He also noted that legislation to combat opioid addiction and overdoses, to build water infrastructure and to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration are on the agenda.

Stewart knocked down the rumor that the Senate will leave town again the week of Aug. 27.

“We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here for the rest of the time,” he said. “Some people thought we were going to be out next week. We’re not going to be out next week. We’re not going to be out the last week. We’re going to be here.” 

Another senior GOP aide said rumors the Senate will be gone after next week are “the wishful thinking of some members.”