WASHINGTON — Republicans are failing at governance. And they know it.
Their senatorially painful decision announced on Tuesday to sacrifice some of lawmakers’ usually sacrosanct August recess was a public confession that they have not gotten the job done even while controlling the White House, Senate and House of Representatives.
In deciding to forgo at least the first two weeks of their regular summer getaway, Senator Mitch McConnell and his colleagues essentially admitted that they could not afford to go home to face constituents without making a concerted effort to pass contentious health care legislation and put some other points on the board.
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“It is time to get results for the American people,” said a group of 10 Republican senators who had pressed Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, to force the Senate to stick around.
Legislative results have been in short supply for unified Republican government as first the House and now the Senate have gotten badly bogged down in trying to overhaul the Obama administration’s health care law — a top priority of Republicans since 2010. The stalemate has been ugly, preventing Republicans from moving ahead on long overdue budget, spending and tax priorities and leaving Mr. McConnell and Senate Republicans frustrated and doubting their abilities.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, was perhaps the most blunt when he said on Twitter over the weekend that the 52 Republican senators should “be ashamed that we have not passed health reform by now.” He added, in all caps for emphasis: “WE WONT BE ASHAMED WE WILL GO FROM MAJORITY TO MINORITY.”
Leadership vows to cut off recess are a staple of congressional theater, used as a ploy to force lawmakers to address an issue or face the prospect of seeing their overseas fact-finding trips canceled. But the threats usually produce some action and are very rarely acted upon. The fact that Mr. McConnell felt compelled to actually abbreviate the recess, just days after Republicans were snickering at the very idea, underscored the seriousness of his party’s plight.
Republicans had other motives for acting. Some anticipated that President Trump would happily whack them on Twitter if they fled as previously scheduled in a couple of weeks without first completing a health care bill. He had foreshadowed that possibility earlier this week with a tweet across the bow: “I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!”
The recess also made for miserable optics given the scant list of achievements Republicans have posted in what is often the most productive time for an empowered new president and his allies in Congress. Skepticism abounded in the Capitol on Tuesday as to whether the extra two weeks would be all that worthwhile, but it seemed to Republicans to be a better option than returning home or heading off on vacation.
“I don’t know how you go on a full-month recess without getting it done,” Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said of the health care bill.
In addition, reducing the recess also provided Republicans a way to inflict some punishment on the Democrats they see as a significant source of their problems. In conceding their lack of achievement, Republicans sought to direct much of the blame for the shortened recess and the poor Republican showing to the opposition, led by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.
“I think it is admission of the fact that Senator Schumer has been very effective at slowing things down to a crawl and blocking the confirmation of President Trump’s cabinet and other sub-cabinet level officials and making it hard to get things done,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “I think it is important we demonstrate we are productive starting next week with the health care bill, and that is what I’m focused on.”
Mr. Schumer was having none of it. He said the Republicans’ problem wasn’t the calendar, it was the substance of their health care bill.
“And by the way, I have sympathy for the Republicans,” Mr. Schumer said. “If I were them, I wouldn’t want to go home and face the voters either, because they’re not getting a very good reaction when it comes to this bill.”
Mr. McConnell said the early August agenda would extend beyond health care, which Senate Republicans still hope to finish off next week. He ticked off a few other measures, including an always contentious debt limit increase, a usually bipartisan Pentagon policy bill and an important piece of legislation for the Food and Drug Administration.
“Not to mention all of these confirmations that are backlogged,” he said. “We intend to fully utilize the first two weeks in August.”
Even if they make significant progress in their additional weeks of work, which remains an open question, Republicans face continued difficulties.
For instance, House Republicans on Tuesday rolled out a Homeland Security measure that would provide $1.6 billion in “physical barrier construction along the Southern border.” In other words, it would fund the wall sought by Mr. Trump but vehemently opposed by Democrats in the House and Senate as well as by some Republicans.
That dispute could start a spending impasse, which could lead to a government shutdown after Sept. 30. Such a result would put many federal workers on an unwanted recess of their own, no matter how long senators stick around in August.