Question: How many days are the House and Senate in session at the same time between now and Aug. 2, when the US will no longer be able to borrow to pay its bills unless Congress raises the national debt ceiling?
That's not a lot of time left for Republicans and Democrats to come to terms. Republicans say they won't raise the national debt limit, currently set at $14.3 trillion, without deep spending cuts or triggers to bring down the federal deficit.
The calendar is working against lawmakers, however. The House opted this year to take a week off before the July 4 holiday, and the Senate takes a break after. This House is off again for another work period back in member districts the week of July 1; the Senate stays is in town, and so on.
That new two-weeks-in, one-week-home calendar is the work of the House Republican majority, notably majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia. He has said he wanted to give members more predictability in their legislative and district work. Many members say they like it, including saving on flight changes at the last minute.
But critics charge that the out-of-sync congressional calendars are not conducive to getting things done in Washington, especially with an impending debt crisis.
“Congress and the president should be staying in town until they get a deal done: no deal, no break,” says David Walker, former US Comptroller and founding member of No Labels, a nonpartisan advocacy group.
In fact, most of the 535 members of Congress will never see the inside of the back room where a deal will eventually be cut on raising the national debt limit in time to avoid default. The breakdown of the debt talks led by Vice President Joe Biden last Thursday punted the negotiations to an even more elite leadership group, including President Obama.
While a deal will be worked out by the chosen few, there remains the formidable job of rallying members to agree to it – or to feel invested enough in the process to support the outcome.
“It’s not just an issue of trying to cut a deal between the White House and the Congress,” Mr. Walker adds. “Work has got to be done to bring along the extremes of both caucuses. They are not going to be happy to be presented with a fait accompli deal.”
Moreover, time lawmakers spent in Washington, engaging with colleagues rather than facing down organized protests at home, can help a move toward consensus on resolving a debt crisis that is sure to require tough choices and votes.
“There is a benefit to members of Congress not going back to their districts, where activist organizations will be ready to put pressure on them to say no to a deal,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.
“Ultimately, a lot of members are going to have to make decisions that people in their districts will not like,” he adds. “There is a virtue in staying in Washington longer. It’s strategically better to sit down with another legislator [saying] ‘here’s a compromise we can live with,’ rather than hearing someone yelling in a room.”
In the end, the deal can be cut with the vast majority of 535 lawmakers out of the room, but it can’t be approved without them. To move a House and Senate far apart on taxes, spending, and entitlements, it helps to be there.
“The key is what are you doing in order to make sure you can get a majority vote in the House Republican caucus, a majority in the House, 60 in the Senate, and a presidential signature,” says Walker. “A lot of work needs to be done between now and Aug. 2.”