As budget crisis looms, Congress leaves town

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Military readiness will be threatened. So will food inspections, teaching jobs, mental health services and more, all because of the automatic spending cuts due to take effect March 1.

Congress, though, has left the building.

Congress is off until Feb. 25 for its Presidents Day recess. That leaves four days to find a way to avoid automatic spending reductions, called a sequester, that the White House warns will “threaten thousands of jobs and the economic security of the middle class.”

Each side says it’s the other guy’s fault they’re not staying. Republicans aren’t being serious about finding solutions, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and “you need two willing partners.”

Republicans counter it’s those stubborn Democrats who won’t budge. Senate Democrats offered an alternative Thursday, and four hours later left for 10 days.

See, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Liberals sit on their hands until the last minute,” he said. “They offer some gimmicky tax hike bill designed to fail – then blame everyone else when it does.”

Congress’ approval rating has had trouble topping 15 percent, and members are hardly fatigued. The 113th Congress, which convened Jan. 3, spent 10 days in session last month.

Some get annoyed when asked why the recess is needed.

“It’s a perennial question and it’s a cheap shot,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “There’s no better place to be than with your constituents. A very small percentage of members go on vacation during these periods.”

One dissenting voice has been House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“The House should not recess and members of Congress should not go home until we finish our work, reach an agreement, and avert this crisis,” she wrote House Speaker John Boehner on Monday. The Ohio Republican didn’t respond.

Asked why the speaker did not respond, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, “I’m sure Rep. Pelosi is aware of the schedule.”

These one- to two-week recesses – they’re also scheduled around Easter and Passover, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and other holidays – are a modern creation. In the nation’s early days, Congress was a part-time matter, meeting from December through the spring.

That changed during the 20th century, and by the end of World War II, Congress came to Washington and stayed, forging friendships and trust that veterans maintain has been lost today. Members usually went home by summer – before the days of air conditioning.

But other than that, “No one expected them to go home during the session,” said Betty Koed, associate Senate historian.

The current stop-and-go system began to evolve in the 1960s. Airplane travel made it easier for everyone to go home. A new emphasis on family life meant members wanted more time back home with their families. And the need to raise lots of money meant more time away from Washington.

Recesses are rarely canceled. The most recent was in July 2011. For the first time in 37 years, the Senate gave up its post-Fourth of July break so it could deal with federal debt limit negotiations and U.S. involvement in Libya.

But even with the clock ticking toward sequestration, there’s little clamor to stay. When Congress returns, the Senate plans to take up other business Feb. 26 and 27, then probably turn to the Democratic package. The House will be waiting.

Email:dlightman@mcclatchydc.com;Twitter:@lightmandavid

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