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Commentary: The all-powerful August break

  • Story Highlights
  • John Feehery: Neither house of Congress will vote on health care before recess
  • He says Pelosi sought a vote before the break, Reid wanted one after
  • He says Pelosi loses some of her leverage due to delay in the vote
  • Feehery: A leader can use the break as a deadline but not as a cudgel
By John Feehery
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: John Feehery was a staffer for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients including the News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He formerly was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

John Feehery says the August break is ordinarily one of the few things that can bring action in Washington.

John Feehery says the August break is ordinarily one of the few things that can bring action in Washington.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The issue was: Should they stay or should they go?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi thought the House should stay and work until Democrats pass health care reform.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thought the Senate should adjourn for the summer break and come back after the senators have a chance to meet with their constituents.

Pelosi lost, and House Democratic leaders now concede there won't be a vote before the traditional August recess.

Both paths came with big risks. Had Pelosi's brigade marched off a cliff, taken a difficult vote on a potentially unpopular bill and faced hordes of angry constituents, she would have faced an unruly and upset Democratic caucus come September.

Should Reid's comrades in the Senate not like what they hear from their constituents on health care reform, he may never have the votes to pull off a majority coalition in the fall.

From my years working on Capitol Hill, I remember well the promise of an August recess and the inviting deadlines it presented to get hard legislation done. One thing President Obama has been right about has been his understanding of the importance of deadlines for the passage of tough bills. Without real hard and fast deadlines, nothing gets done in Congress.

There are three real deadlines that spur action -- August, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although this is not true anymore for many parts of the country, August used to be the traditional time for families to take their extended vacations before kids go back to school. Now, of course, many kids go back to school mid-August, but the family vacation and the threat of a congressional leader to cancel that vacation is seen as one of the best ways to spur action.

The chief difference between the August break and the holiday breaks is usually that in summer, the legislative bodies are working on their own versions of bills, not the conference reports that result in the final laws passed by Congress. This means the House and Senate don't necessarily coordinate their departures, leading to situations like the one facing Pelosi and Reid.

The interest groups arrayed both for and against health care reform are ready to pounce on members who are gettable -- those whose votes are still up for grabs. Doctors groups, hospital administrators, insurance executives, labor groups, senior citizens organizations and patient advocates all want to press their particular point of view on their local representatives. Their advocacy is most effective in the districts of the members.

Under this theory, Pelosi felt those advocates may very well make her job of passing government-run health care harder, and she was pushing for an immediate vote.

Harry Reid thinks that those advocates might make his job easier, so he is willing to roll the dice and hope his gamble wins the day.

In truth, August is not the best time to advocate for any legislation. Many members of Congress are slated either to take vacation or an official trip far away from their constituents. Apart from professional grassroots organizers, most other Americans are either focused on their own vacations or getting the kids ready for school.

So, unless the members are influenced by a targeted advertising campaign in their districts (which is highly unlikely), it is not so certain that they will change their positions dramatically when they go home.

Which leads us to the more important reason that leaders threaten to cancel vacations in order to compel legislative action. For Pelosi, her only leverage was to use the August recess as a way to get the committees to do their work, mark up the legislation and make the compromises necessary to bring it to the floor for its initial consideration.

Without the backstop of August, she has no other ability to force her colleagues to the table. If she can't pass it now, it is unlikely she will get the votes to pass it in September, October or November.

For Harry Reid, there is a parliamentary reason to wait. Under the budget resolution passed earlier this year, if he can't pass it under the regular order (in other words, get 60 votes), he might be able to force a portion of the bill through reconciliation (a parliamentary procedure that allows Reid to pass it with 50 votes). As set up by the budget resolution, Reid can start using those tactics in September. That means he has a viable reason to wait until fall to start cutting the deals necessary to pass a bill through the Senate.

But the prospect of taking off the rest of the summer before taking action on health care is not a happy political choice. As was the case last summer -- when Republicans beat up Democrats for adjourning Congress before acting on an energy bill -- House leaders will likely face some real heat for leaving before completing their work.

The irony is that this time, Pelosi would face heat from her own allies for leaving without passage of the legislation, not from Republicans, who would surely like to see the speaker delay consideration of this bill in the hopes they could persuade her to perform major surgery on it in autumn.

In any event, it was never likely that either the House or the Senate would cancel their August break to pass legislation, no matter how much Pelosi threatened to do just that.

Members of Congress value the recess as a time to recharge their batteries, reconnect with their family and visit with their constituents. Pelosi may well have realized that a wise leader might use the August recess as a deadline, but not a cudgel with which to beat her colleagues.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.

All About Nancy PelosiHarry ReidHealth Care Policy

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