Can Congress Vote On Immigration Reform Before Its Vacation?

The House has been in session for an average of only 33 days every summer for the last ten years, and the Senate 38.

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William Philpott / REUTERS

Capitol Hill interns sit on the National Mall in Washington.

The clock is ticking for immigration reform. On Tuesday, President Obama urged Congress to move quickly on the sweeping reform bill the Senate began debating this week. “There’s no reason Congress can’t get this done by the end of the summer,” he said. The president’s urgency was reminiscent of the way President George W. Bush pushed for his own immigration reform package in 2007. Six years ago this Wednesday, Bush visited Capitol Hill to “make a personal appeal” to Republican senators on behalf of his plan, which included a goal that they vote before Congress’s July 4 recess—the same target recently set for this year’s Senate reform effort by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.

The Senate couldn’t deliver a vote by July 4 in 2007, however, and Bush’s bill eventually died in the doldrums of summer. Proponents of this year’s version hope for more success. But, they too face a calendar challenge. Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says that he “wouldn’t bet a great deal of money on meeting the July 4th deadline” this year.

A significant delay in the Senate could make it harder for the House to vote on immigration reform before Congress goes on vacation. The House is scheduled to be in session for just 16 days following the July 4 holiday before lawmakers begin their month-long vacation on August 5th. House Speaker John Boehner has said he hopes the House can vote before then.

Reform advocates worry that if a bill isn’t passed before August, opponents might marshal intense opposition to it in the media and at lawmakers’ town hall meetings, just as they did with Obama’s health care plan in the summer of 2009, which threatened to derail that bill. Ornstein thinks immigration reform could survive Congress’s recess, but that the delay would make passage more difficult.

One question is why August has to be a deadline in the first place. Congress’s annual summer break is a relatively new phenomenon. Back when Congress had no air conditioning, and then only crude “manufactured weather” in its chambers, lawmakers were desperate to escape Washington before the peak of the city’s heat and humidity. But the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, passed well after the arrival of modern air conditioning, mandated an annual summer break.

Even before August arrives, Capitol Hill often slows down as temperatures rise. According to archived congressional calendars, over the past ten years the House has met for an average of 33 sessions each summer (which lasts for 64 or 65 weekdays). The Senate has convened on approximately 38 days. Staying in touch with constituents is vital for an elected official, but members of Congress usually spend almost half the summer away from the seat of government. That could be bad news for President Obama’s immigration reform goal. (The president, by the way, will reportedly take off two weeks this August.)

Of course, lawmakers could agree to recess later, or not at all. But that’s about as likely as finding cool temperatures in Washington this August.