Beware the Ides of August.
Of course, William Shakespeare wrote “Beware the Ides of March.” March 15 to be exact, or the “Ides.” Technically, using the Roman system from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the Ides fall on August 13. But when it comes to Capitol Hill, just beware of the entire month. Eventful stuff often unfolds in August. This is ironic. Because, technically, Congress is supposed to be out of session for August.
That almost never happens.
This August is particularly nettlesome.
The House isn’t scheduled to be in session at all this month. The House cut town on Friday, July 30. But beware the Ides of August. There’s a strong likelihood the House will have to return later this month to tackle a still unfinished, bipartisan infrastructure package now before the Senate. That’s to say nothing of the House grappling with the Senate’s “budget framework” for the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan. And, we may just get a hearing late this month from the new, House select committee investigating the January riot at the Capitol.
That’s why House members — most House members — escaped Washington, D.C., when they could at the end of last week. They knew there was a good possibility House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would recall everyone toward the end of the month.
But some House members haven’t gone anywhere.
The COVID-related eviction moratorium expired at the end of July. House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., huddled late Friday with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in an effort to engineer a legislative solution to extend the moratorium. But the House lacked the votes to freeze evictions – both through the end of the year and also mid-October. Moderate Democrats wouldn’t go along. And, that’s to say nothing of the plan lacking votes to overcome a Senate filibuster.
“I just thought that we should have fought harder,” said Waters exiting Pelosi’s office on Friday. “I grant you, we had not been able to count to 218 votes. There was still a lot of support by the (Democratic) Caucus. But not enough.”
So, the first wave of the Ides of August hit in late July.
On the night of July 29, Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo.; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif.; and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., launched a “sleep-in” on the House steps to protest the expiration of the eviction moratorium.
“Give us some time to get to 218 votes within our caucus. Get people back here,” said Bush, who says she was homeless three times. “I know what it feels like to sleep on the street. And it’s not OK for us to try to figure things out while we know that people are hurting.”
And so, several days into August, the protest continued on the House steps. The Biden administration initially said it couldn’t do anything. Then, reversed course.
“Still, as a sitting Congress member, I struggle with what happened to me in my past because of all of the issues living in poverty and being someone who was working low-wage [jobs],” said Bush.
August is often a kind of “news vacuum.” People are on vacation. The House and Senate aren’t scheduled to be here. So something fills the void. That’s what happened with the eviction moratorium. A daily protest with lots of cameras, microphones and notebooks present to document happenings.
This is akin to what unfolded in the House in August 2008. The House and Senate voted to take off five weeks for the Democratic and Republican conventions. Gas prices spiked that summer. But Republicans knew that Pelosi was toxic to average voters. So, every day in August, Republicans crowded into an empty House chamber. They brought with them a studio audience: dozens of members of the press and tourists. They railed each day about the price of gasoline. And then, they would demand that Pelosi reconvene the House to act on fuel prices.
It was the perfect soundstage for the GOP. An empty House chamber helped make their point. Never mind that the House voted to adjourn for the month so that both parties could hold their conventions.
Democrats decried the Republican guerilla tactic as a “stunt.” Democrats learned from that. So, prior to the August recess of 2009, the House Administration Committee sent a memo to members that the House chamber would be offline the entire month for construction.
“Access to the chamber and gallery will be restricted during the period of construction activity,” read the memo.
Word was out to “Beware the Ides of August” in the Senate long before the month began. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, put senators on notice in early July to expect long nights and maybe weekend sessions as the Senate tried to finish the infrastructure measures.
The Senate finally voted to formally begin debate the infrastructure bill last Friday. Schumer immediately booked weekend sessions last Saturday and Sunday for the Senate.
But, after the Senate convened Saturday morning, the Senate never took a roll call vote, before adjourning Saturday night.
There was a similar situation on Sunday. The Senate convened at noon Eastern Sunday. But nothing happened until the bipartisan coalition of senators, which forged the infrastructure package (in mid-June, mind you) finally assembled all 2,702 pages of the bill Sunday evening. The Senate never took a roll call vote on an amendment to the infrastructure bill until Monday morning.
“The longer it takes to finish the bill, the longer we’ll be here,” threatened Schumer.
Of course, no one expected this process to move expeditiously.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, called for a “robust” amendment process.
“Look at the calendar [Schumer] laid out. We know we’re going to be here next week anyway,” said McConnell. He added that “slow and steady wins the race.”
But, what would a race to finish the infrastructure bill be without a COVID scare?
No lawmaker, House or Senate, tested positive for COVID since late January. But three lawmakers have announced they are positive in the past couple of weeks: Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and Clay Higgins, R-La., and now Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Before anyone knew Graham tested positive, some photographers spotted Graham walking through a Congressional basement, masked, carrying a brown paper bag.
I don’t have many maxims regarding how I cover Capitol Hill. But I learned years ago to steer clear of any lawmaker walking through the Capitol carrying a brown paper bag. The bag is frequently from the Office of the Attending Physician at the Capitol. And the contents of such brown paper bags is often prescription medication.
Another adage I have about Washington: Nothing good ever happens on a boat.
Former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., was caught on a yacht with his mistress in 1987. That helped end Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign. The boat was called “Monkey Business.” You can’t make this stuff up. The Feds nailed former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., in 2005 after he pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from lobbyists. One of the perquisites Cunningham scored from lobbyists was use of a yacht in D.C., on which he lived.
But there has not been an intersection of COVID and boats in Washington before last weekend.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., invited bipartisan colleagues – many of whom worked on the infrastructure package, to his houseboat in D.C. Graham was there and potentially exposed other senators. Fox News is told Senate Minority Whip John Thune, D-S.D., worked the grill, dishing up hamburgers. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., tested negative and was spotted walking around the Capitol, double-masked.
So far, no other senators tested positive besides Graham. But if they did, such a scenario could derail the infrastructure bill. Unlike the House, the Senate never imposed remote voting during the pandemic. So, if senators are out, they can’t vote.
But perhaps the Olympics in Tokyo could help.
Olympic organizers maneuver these tiny Toyota cars out into the middle of the stadium to retrieve shot puts and discuses after each competitor makes their hurl or heave. Perhaps the Senate could commission similar, miniature vehicles to deliver the votes of absent senators to the Senate chamber.
So, beware the Ides of August. The Senate is likely here through the weekend and next week. The House is coming back later this month. No break. This is especially onerous because Congress never took a recess through the holidays last year, even meeting on New Year’s Day.
Perhaps we’ll find ourselves discussing the “Ides of December” or the “Ides of January” soon enough.