Senate recess on chopping block as debt ceiling deadline looms

The debt ceiling drama is jeopardizing one of the Senate’s more precious institutions: recess.

With little progress made toward a deal to raise the debt ceiling ahead of the June 1st X-date, senators this week expressed alarm that they might have to nix their Memorial Day recess to try to stave off a disastrous default. The break is scheduled to run from May 19 through May 29.

“I’m not making any solid plans until the debt ceiling is taken care of,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, told The Hill about the upcoming planned break. “I’m not planning to be here, but I’m not planning on leaving. I’ve been in the Senate long enough, I can say that and it makes sense.”

President Biden and congressional leaders are set to meet early next week about the debt limit, having postponed the planned Friday sit-down. The next get-together will piggyback off hours of meetings between their staffs in recent days and the initial sit-down between the five leaders that took place on Tuesday.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters there was no “new movement” in talks, heightening the possibility that the weeklong break could be scrapped. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican, told members during a conference lunch on Wednesday it’s “hard to imagine us not being here,” according to Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

“If the deadline is June 1, it’s hard to see how we will have executed on this thing by then, or at least by the week before, which is the week we would be out,” Thune told The Hill, noting the decision is up to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

As for Cramer, he is fully expecting to be in the District.

“I’m not worried about it [getting canceled]. I’m fairly confident it will,” he said with a laugh.

Adding to the pressure surrounding the situation, the Senate and House are slated to be in session concurrently for only four days between now and June 1 — Monday through Thursday of next week. The Senate recess is then set to start, while the House is expected to be out of town the week of May 29. That, of course, is the week of what the Treasury Department has set as the X-date.

If the Senate’s break is nixed and not replaced sometime in June before the two-week break surrounding the Fourth of July holiday, senators would be in Washington for 10 straight weeks — twice as long as the next longest stretch on the 2023 Senate calendar.

When asked about the possibility of losing that week, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) made clear she hopes they can keep that break on the books if possible.

“Recess has been scheduled for a long time,” Capito said, noting senators refer to them as “state work periods.” “I think the leaders and the president have had time to know where the deadlines are. They’ve been talking about this, but we’re going to do our work, and if it means we have to stay here and reach a consensus, that’s what we’ll do.”

“We all have families and family obligations just like everyone else. It’s graduation time in May,” Capito said, noting she is delivering two graduation speeches this month. “It’s disappointing, but we knew this when we signed up for it.”

While recess is considered a much-needed break from the head-banging happenings at the Capitol, it has been canceled or truncated in recent years. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) kept members in during a planned mid-March break to pass a COVID-19 relief package in the early days of the pandemic.

McConnell also decided to lop off part of the sacrosanct August recess in 2017 before deciding to nix most of it a year later to work on government funding and to pass judicial nominations.

“Who knows. We’ve got to stay until we resolve this,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, adding that it’s “very possible” the break could be done away with. “I think everybody needs to be prepared to stay here to get things done.”

Absent a deal or progress toward a deal in the days ahead of June 1, top economists and banking leaders are warning of potential major damage to the financial system. Heather Boushey, a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, reportedly told lawmakers the White House has been told the U.S.’s national credit rating will be downgraded if it gets “too close to default.”

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said a default on the national debt would be “potentially catastrophic” and warned Wall Street will panic if lawmakers come close to doing so.

If anything, senators are hoping the looming recess could pressure some figures to act.

“I’m hoping not,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) when asked if the weeklong hiatus could be in jeopardy. “If that’s what motivates us to do what we know we have to do anyway, I guess, so be it.”

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