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 DurbinKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown brawl Overnight Energy: Trump ends talks with California on car emissions | Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal | Climate PAC backing Inslee in possible 2020 run MORE (Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat, skipped the week altogether, as did seven Republican senators — not counting Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGabbard hits back at Meghan McCain after fight over Assad Mellman: Where are good faith and integrity? GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority MORE (R-Ariz.), who is away from Washington indefinitely while he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

ADVERTISEMENT

The poor attendance on the Republican side of the aisle did not sit well with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Trump selects Kelly Craft for United Nations ambassador Union leader says Green New Deal would make infrastructure bill ‘absolutely impossible’ 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 LeeThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump escalates fight with NY Times The 10 GOP senators who may break with Trump on emergency MORE (Utah) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump escalates fight with NY Times 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 Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump Don’t look for House GOP to defy Trump on border wall Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump's emergency declaration 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 GrahamTrump says he'll '100 percent' veto measure blocking emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Dems tee up Tuesday vote against Trump's emergency declaration | GOP expects few defections | Trump doubles number of troops staying in Syria to 400 On The Money: Dems set Tuesday vote on Trump's emergency declaration | Most Republicans expected to back Trump | Senate plots to avoid fall shutdown drama | Powell heading before Congress 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 CardinThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation builds for Mueller report The Hill's Morning Report — Emergency declaration to test GOP loyalty to Trump The Hill's Morning Report - What to watch for as Mueller’s probe winds down 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 CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign 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 MurphyCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen This week: Border deal remains elusive as shutdown looms 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) TesterOvernight Energy: Trump ends talks with California on car emissions | Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal | Climate PAC backing Inslee in possible 2020 run Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal How the border deal came together 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.”