Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I went over this last week when I wrote The House Freedom Caucus Approaches a Reckoning, so I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. But I’m beginning to see analysis similar to my own in the reporting of the major newspapers. For example, Carl Hulse of the New York Times has a piece today that touches on most of my themes. Its basic format is to highlight a growing self-awareness among congressional Republicans that they’re behind schedule and don’t have a good plan for completing their work. And this explains why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just cancelled the first two weeks of the traditional August recess.

The topline concern is obviously that they have not passed a health care reform bill in the Senate, which is something they knew they’d take heavy criticism for if they went on a month-long vacation. But if you take a look at what McConnell wants to accomplish between now and mid-August, you should get an overwhelming sense that an extra two weeks of work time won’t be sufficient.

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.

As far as I can discern, the Republicans have no strategy or even any clearly articulated plans for winning over Democratic votes for any of these measures. Obviously, they have no Democratic votes to repeal Obamacare. They have no Democratic votes that I’m aware of for building a border wall. They haven’t promised the Democrats a clean debt ceiling bill, and without one they’re unlikely to get any Democratic votes for that. It’s possible that they’ll get more help on the FDA bill and the Pentagon bill, but it’s unclear if the Democrats will allow them to proceed to them without overcoming procedural hurdles and delays. They have not cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that would allow them to quickly move their appointments and nominees. They also have a budget to pass and thirteen appropriations bills, most of which will probably never see the light of day.

How much of this can they pass without Democratic help, and how much of what they can pass can they get done by mid-August? I suspect the answer to those questions is “not much.”

On health care, McConnell is pretty desperate to pass something even if it is a dead letter in the House. The House passed a bill they’re members hated because of the same consideration. Better to leave the steaming pile on the Senate’s plate than to fail outright and take all the responsibility for failure. If McConnell can return the favor, he will. But his goal is more ambitious, which is to pass something that is so acceptable to the House Republicans that they’ll agree to rubber-stamp it without amendments.

How he can make the bill palatable enough to both moderates and conservatives to accomplish this is anybody’s guess, but the Medicaid issue alone seems to make this an impossible task. There are still a bunch of possible outcomes. He could announce that his caucus can’t come to an agreement and cancel the vote. He could schedule a vote he knows will fail just to put everyone on the record (although this is highly unlikely). He could convince his caucus to pass something that some of them hate on the promise that the House won’t pass it without amendment. Or he could find the magic solution that allows for repeal that no one can seem to see on the horizon.

Given how much he wants to get done, you can be sure that he won’t want to use all his available time on health care. His problem is that he’ll face the same headaches when he moves to the next issues.

They crafted a legislative strategy premised on the idea that they would not need any Democratic support for any of it. They way this is turning out, it looks like nearly the opposite is true.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at