Under pressure from President Obama, senators said Thursday they’ll cancel next week’s planned vacation and be in session as they try to make headway on debt negotiations - but only after taking a four-day holiday weekend.
And once they’re back in town, it’s unclear what the Senate can actually do, since there is no budget or spending bill ready for action.
Democratic leaders said they would instead begin debating a measure to authorize the president’s deployment of U.S. forces to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, but the GOP blocked that move and vowed to halt all other action until the Senate found a way to begin debating the debt.
Meanwhile, the White House said Mr. Obama, who on Wednesday berated his former colleagues in Congress for taking vacations, will continue to keep up his re-election fundraising schedule because he can “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Taken together, the day amounted to a major escalation of words and finger-pointing, but the goal - a deal to lower the deficit and raise the government’s borrowing limit - remained elusive.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, broke the news of the canceled vacation and said he was keeping lawmakers here to focus on the impending Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling.
“We really don’t have any time to waste,” he said. “We know the most important issue facing the country today is reaching an agreement that cuts our deficit and grows our economy.”
But later in the day, he proposed that the first order of business be a resolution on Libya. That drew protests from Republicans, who said they will block all action until the Senate starts voting on spending and debt issues.
“Let’s not be in session just to try and fool the American people into thinking the Senate is working on the nation’s fiscal crisis,” a group of GOP senators said in a letter challenging Mr. Reid. “Let’s actually begin a constructive debate on the biggest challenge our country faces - spending and debt.”
Republican leaders have said those talks cannot include tax increases, though, which sets them on a collision course with Democrats who insist that revenue increases be on the table, and point to tax breaks for corporate jet owners and oil companies as easy targets.
Mr. Reid said there is action away from the floor next week related to the debt.
He said he’ll meet with his budget committee chairman on Tuesday to talk about taking up the long-stalled annual blueprint, and said he has invited Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden to meet with Democrats on Wednesday.
The White House said it had not yet accepted any invitations.ampaign event, just hours before a key fundraising deadline passed at midnight.
Meanwhile, the House remains on an 11-day vacation, and is scheduled to return to business at the end of next week.
For three of the past five weeks, at least one chamber of Congress has been on vacation, shortchanging the amount of time for debate or votes on spending.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama showed frustration with his former congressional colleagues.
“They’re in one week, they’re out one week, and then they’re saying, ‘Obama’s got to step in you need to be here?’ I’ve been here,” he said “You stay here. Let’s get it done.”
The House has passed a budget and is working through its annual spending bills, but the Senate has yet to offer a budget or pass any appropriations measures. Instead, it has defeated every budget presented, including the House plan and Mr. Obama’s own budget, which didn’t garner a single vote of support.