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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday canceled the first two weeks of the usually sacrosanct August recess to give lawmakers time to catch up on a roster of unfinished legislation and a backlog of Trump administration nominees.
The announcement by McConnell came as Republicans controlling the Senate continue to struggle with legislation to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. He vowed to wrap up that legislation next week but a number of neglected items have been left in health care's wake as that bill has been repeatedly delayed.
Little progress has been made on other legislation, and the Kentucky Republican says the chamber would work on the annual defense policy measure and, perhaps, must-do legislation to increase the government's borrowing authority.
McConnell made the announcement after a growing group of fellow Republicans have repeatedly urged him to keep the Senate in session to catch up on the raft of unfinished work, which includes well more than 100 nominees.
It's not uncommon for backbench lawmakers to demand that a recess be canceled to play catch-up on unfinished work. But such efforts often amount to grandstanding, and most everybody in Washington is privately relieved when vacations aren't canceled.
"If you were going to school and you were getting failing grades in your spring semester, you better stay in school for the summer and go to summer school, not take a recess," said freshman Sen. Steve Daines of Montana at a Tuesday news conference populated by mostly junior Republicans.
But in this case, the political pressure — on a GOP majority that has failed to make good on any of its major legislative commitments despite full control of Congress and the White House — combined with a truly daunting workload to force McConnell's hand.
The Senate had been drifting toward only having a single week at month's end to execute the rest of the July workload. Typically there's a burst of activity just before the August break as the decks are cleared. In the first year of a new administration the August recess is also a time to take stock of the accomplishments of the new president.
McConnell cited "unprecedented level of obstruction" by Democrats, particularly on normally routine confirmations of subcabinet posts and noncontroversial judicial nominees as the reason for the move.
"While the current president has made 178 nominations, the Senate has confirmed only 46 of them," McConnell said.
The Senate's top Democrat shot back that the GOP is grappling with problems of its own making.
"I have sympathy for the Republicans. If I were them I wouldn't want to go home and face the voters either because they're not getting very good reaction when it comes to this (health care) bill," said Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
In the House, the hard-right Freedom Caucus praised McConnell's move and called upon House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to reciprocate.
"There are too many unresolved issues before Congress including tax reform, health care, the debt ceiling, government funding, and more to leave Washington before the people's work is done," said the Freedom Caucus statement. "It is imperative that the additional weeks are coupled with decisive action."
For some in the Capitol it also had more personal or parochial impacts, forcing lawmakers and staffers alike to rethink summer plans or grouse about non-refundable plane tickets. For some these trips were work related as many lawmakers and staffers head abroad over the summer on official delegation travels known as "codels."
"Yeah I was going to Israel with a bunch of new members but I guess I'm not now," remarked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
In the midst of the general inaction, lawmakers were taking one concrete step Tuesday. At the behest of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield, Calif., the House was scheduled to vote to rename a post office in Bakersfield after native son and music legend Merle Haggard.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.