Rush to the August Exits Makes for High-Stakes September

The final week before the August recess in a non-election year: Customarily, it’s the occasion for climactic votes on some of the most important matters of the year. This time, it will come and go with little more than a rhetorical torrent about how little’s been done to justify a five-week vacation.

Two years ago, a melodramatic eleventh-hour deal averted a government default but ultimately spawned the sequester. Two years before that, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court. In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the get-out-of-town votes completed the last comprehensive rewrite of federal energy policy.

But in the coming days, the most substantive news will be clearing a hiding-in-plain-sight compromise to hold down student loan interest rates, one month after busting a deadline and making millions of college kids anxious.

That anticlimax will leave plenty of time for lawmakers to raise a self-aggrandizing fuss about how they really ought to stick around and start negotiating to avoid the next potential budget catastrophe. Members from both parties will join in, safe in the knowledge they won’t get their stated wish because nothing is more sacrosanct to Congress than summer break.

That “district work period” on the House calendar for the final week of September? Not so much.

When the lights get turned back on at the Capitol on Sept. 9, the two chambers will be in session for just eight days before House members are due to depart again, not to return until Sept. 30, the final day of fiscal 2013.

At the moment, it’s impossible to see how an agreement to keep the government open for the start of the new budget year can get done in those two weeks, given the Republican disorganization about how to approach the deadline and the resistance of the president and congressional Democrats to whatever the GOP might cook up.

But it’s also impossible to imagine House GOP leaders concluding it’s in their team’s political interest to leave Washington unless at least an initial stopgap deal gets done.

Republicans are headed toward 2014 with what looks like an insurmountable lead in the House, given their 16-vote cushion and the strong record of the party outside the Oval Office gaining seats in the second-term midterm. And they have a clear, if narrow, path to gain the six seats they’ll need to win back the Senate. An enormous political miscalculation of their own making looks to provide the only opportunity for them to lose the House, and the best opportunity to squander their Senate chances.

Countenancing the first partial government shutdown in almost two decades, by walking away from the table one week early, would surely fit the bill.

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