By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he was canceling most of the Senate’s time-honored August recess, an election-year move that could help lawmakers confirm more of President Donald Trump’s nominees while keeping vulnerable Democratic senators off the campaign trail.
McConnell, R-Ky., said he decided to shorten the usual summer getaway “due to the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats of the president’s nominees” and to work on must-pass spending bills.
Conservative lawmakers and groups have been pressing McConnell to keep lawmakers in session to address nearly 150 federal judicial vacancies — a number Democrats attribute to GOP delaying tactics during President Barack Obama’s last years in office. McConnell said last month that he considers confirming judges his top priority.
Asked if his shortening of the recess was aimed at pressuring Democrats to halt delaying tactics against Trump’s nominees, McConnell showed no willingness of reviving the break if the pace of nominations quickens.
“I hope we’ll get greater cooperation, but everybody should anticipate that we will be here,” he told reporters.
Democrats say the number of vacancies stems directly from Republicans blocking Obama’s judicial nominees during his final two years in office. Trump inherited more than 100 vacancies on day one of his term, including the Supreme Court seat held open for nearly a year.
Last year, McConnell also announced he would delay the chamber’s five-week August break by two weeks. But the Senate’s late-July defeat of the Republican effort to repeal Obama’s health care law took the wind out of the GOP’s sails and they ended up staying just one week longer.
McConnell also said Tuesday that he wants to pass as many annual spending bills as possible before the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year. Leaders hope that would diminish the chances for a budget standoff that could spark a politically damaging government shutdown.
Republicans hope that approving more Trump nominations and legislation would show voters that the GOP-run government can produce results.
Democrats nursing long-shot hopes of winning Senate control in the November elections have 26 incumbents facing re-election, including two independents allied with them. The GOP is defending just nine seats, so it could be in Republicans’ advantage to keep lawmakers at the Capitol.
Ten of those Democrats are from states Donald Trump won in the 2016 presidential election. Republicans control the Senate 51-49.
Senators of both parties said they welcomed the extra weeks of work, with Democrats signaling they intend to use the period to focus attention on health care. Polls show that issue is a top public concern, and Democrats believe the GOP’s failed effort to repeal Obama’s health care law last year has put Republicans on the defensive.
“Working through August gives us the perfect opportunity to tackle this pressing issue of health care,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Republicans said Senate Democrats have forced 100 procedural votes to free up Trump’s executive and judicial nominees, which they said was far more than the six previous presidents combined had experienced during their first two years in office.
Democrats say Trump secured a record number of circuit court judges in his first year, 12, to just three for Obama in his first year. Democrats are also still upset over McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings or votes on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
By mid-afternoon, House GOP leaders had released no updates on their plans for a five-week break beginning July 27. Their absence would limit the legislative work the Senate can achieve alone.
Not all is lost for senators, aides and other Capitol denizens hoping to relax. McConnell’s office said senators will likely be on a break for the first full week of August before returning for the rest of the month.
AP reporter Kevin Freking contributed to this report.