When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told fellow Republicans that their plans to spend August back home were being ditched, the grumbling was brief. After all, McConnell’s reasoning, as typical, was sound and his political antennae finely tuned.
But the decision to scrap the month-long August recess is about so much more than the stated desire to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees for his Administration and to the courts. In the end, this is a prime way to jam Senate Democrats who are seeking re-election. There is a reason why even his harshest critics acknowledge McConnell is among the shrewdest political tacticians working today.
“He’s taking summer vacation as a hostage,” Democratic strategist Brian Fallon snarked on Twitter.
Of the 35 Senate seats being decided this November, 24 are currently held by Democrats. Another two are in the hands of non-affiliated senators who caucus with the Democrats. Of them, 10 Democrats are from states Trump won in 2016. (Only one Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada, faces comparable vulnerability.) By tethering lawmakers to Washington, it limits their abilities to meet with voters and make the case for re-election.
Sen. John Cornyn, McConnell’s second-in-command, was transparently political when discussing what the move means for Democrats. “I think now they’re desperate because now they realize they’re more exposed politically, because they’ve got so many people up running for re-election in red states,” he told reporters at the Capitol.
The move left Democrats fuming. “The fact that the Republicans have resorted to keeping Democrats off the campaign trail in August shows you just how nervous they are about November,” a senior aide to Senate Democrats said.
Privately, they were still formulating their strategy. Some strategists suggested leaving Washington behind, even though the Senate was still in session, and have one lawmaker stick around to gum-up the process with objections and procedural gimmicks. A lawmaker from a nearby state, such as Virginia Sen. Mark Warner or Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, would do nicely. The risk in that strategy is to prove McConnell’s and Trump’s claims that the Democrats were little more than obstructionists.
An alternative case was being made to stay in Washington and en masse oppose the President’s nominees. Supporters of this idea note that the enthusiasm is strongest among the most liberal members of the Democratic Party, many of whom have been clamoring for Democrats to do more to block the President’s team. For instance, activists picketed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s offices in California before she came out against Trump’s pick to lead the CIA.
A third option is the least appealing but most efficient: to give the President his nominees. McConnell played this same game last year and canceled August recess. The Senate then confirmed a slate of 77 nominees and lawmakers were allowed to leave town. “It’s a calculation of raw politics,” said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who faces a potentially difficult re-election bid.
Finally, McConnell’s other stated goal of staying in Washington to pass a spending bill simply doesn’t match up with the possibilities. The House has no plans to be in Washington during August and lawmakers in the lower chamber plan to be campaigning in earnest to defend their majorities. Constitutionally, all spending bills have to start in the House, so talk of any big omnibus packages matters only if the House can give the Senate something to pick up. At this point, that is an iffy proposition at best.