The U.S. Senate is on track to work the fewest number of days since 1956, a fact that Democrats seized on Wednesday to attack the chamber’s Republican leadership.
Senators returned last week to Washington after a seven-week break. Another recess could come as early as the end of this week or next, freeing embattled senators to return to the campaign trail in their states.
But newly rested legislators so far have failed to make clear progress toward funding the fight against Zika, voting on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee or averting a government shutdown.
Eager to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans in November, Democrats hope to pin the lack of productivity on their GOP colleagues.
To that end, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri hauled a new prop to the Senate floor on Wednesday: a 2016 calendar.
The days legislators were not scheduled to be in Washington were marked out in black.
It has been more than 60 years, she said, since the Senate has worked so few days.
“I showed this calendar to people at home. They thought I was kidding,” McCaskill said.
“I think there is like 240 workdays that most Americans work every year,” she said. “By my estimate, I think we’re working about 110 of those. Now, no wonder the American people are angry.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, called the calendar that McCaskill displayed “breathtaking.”
“We are out more than we are in,” Heitkamp said.
Putting in less than a five-day workweek in Washington is nothing unusual for members of Congress, however – regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in control.
From 2001 to 2015, the House of Representatives averaged 139 days of legislating in Washington every year, according to uspolitics.com.
During the same period, the Senate averaged about 162 days of legislative work every year, Senate records show.
That works out to about three days per week.
“The American people have to do their jobs day in, day out,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. “No matter what, they expect the same from the people they elect to this body.”
Tester, who serves as chairman of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, complained that the days Congress works seem determined by the next election, not by the policy that needs to be passed.
“Republicans control the Senate, they control the House,” he said. “Why can’t they get anything done?”
Republicans counter that blaming their party for running a do-nothing Senate is hypocritical, given repeated votes by Democrats to block legislation they dislike from moving to debate or to the floor for votes.
Most recently, Democrats blocked a bill for the third time that would have funded Zika prevention and research.
They objected to budget cuts in the bill and language that would make Planned Parenthood clinics ineligible for grant money in Puerto Rico, which has been hard hit by Zika.
“It takes a certain amount of creativity,” said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, “for the Democratic senators to come to the floor and complain about not doing our jobs on Zika funding, when three separate times the majority leader and Republicans have offered $1.1 billion in funding for Zika and Democratic senators have refused to allow a vote.”
Lamar and other Republicans rejected Democrats’ argument that the GOP-led Congress hasn’t been productive when it has been in session.
Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Republican Congress “has been able to reverse years of Democrat inertia, despite repeated Democratic filibusters.”
Among the bills passed by this Congress are a long-term highway bill, tax cuts for small businesses and families, a major opioid bill, sanctions against North Korea, legislation to help victims of human trafficking and a veterans suicide-prevention bill, Stewart said in an email.
A major water-resources bill is poised to pass this week, he added.
“When Democrats ran the Senate, everything was put off until ‘next year,’ ” Stewart said.
Despite her scathing criticism of Republicans on Wednesday, McCaskill acknowledged that just because lawmakers aren’t in Washington doesn’t mean they aren’t working.
“I know every member of this body, when they go back to their homes in their states, they work. We have a lot of meetings to go to, people to see, so I don’t want to say that we’re not in session, that we’re not working,” the senator said.
“But (when Republicans took over) the American people were told that we would be putting in more work in Washington,” she said.