Interrupted Recess Brings Bickering Back To House

The House of Representatives was supposed to be on break all this month, as lawmakers hit the streets in their home districts, campaigning for this fall's elections. But members have been summoned back for a one-day session, and the partisan campaign atmosphere is coming to the Capitol with them.

The House of Representatives is back in town Tuesday for a one-day session of Congress.

The House was supposed to be on break all this month, as lawmakers hit the streets in their home districts, campaigning for this fall's elections.

So, what's important enough to pull a bunch of endangered politicians off the campaign trail?

Teachers, says Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the lawmakers back to pass a $26 billion aid package for state workers. The White House estimates it could save the jobs of some 300,000 teachers and other civil servants.

"We have to get this done before the kids go back to school, because there are people making hiring and firing decisions as we speak, and we want to make sure that when the kids get back to school there's a teacher in the classroom," says Van Hollen, who is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- the guy in charge of getting Democrats re-elected.

But Rep. David Dreier, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, says it's amazing how sloppy the Democrats are.

"It's unfortunate to me that they've ended up resorting to this kind of action now," says Dreier, who had to jet back to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles. "You know, we thought we could go for six weeks without massive spending continuing. But just a week after we take this break, we end up coming back for this."

A Campaign Atmosphere

Van Hollen says it's not the House Democrats' fault -- they passed the bill months ago, but the Senate didn't get around to it until last Thursday.

"The good news is that they've acted in time to get this money into the classrooms to make sure that there are teachers there," he says.

But Dreier counters that if this aid package were really important to Democrats, they should have put in a budget and gotten it done earlier. They didn't even bother to pass a budget, he adds.

"A budget establishes priorities," he says. "And the fact that we've ended up coming back here, to me, is an indication of the worst combination imaginable -- and that is arrogance combined with ineptitude."

To which Van Hollen says: "What's really concerning is that our Republican colleagues intend to vote against this, even though it's entirely paid for. Again, paid for by closing down these tax loopholes that encourage corporations to ship jobs overseas. I mean, this is a win-win."

And so on. Clearly, the campaign atmosphere is coming back to the Capitol with the politicians.

'What They're Hired To Do'

The August recess is a congressional tradition dating back to 1790. There have been times when it's been scuttled or interrupted, but only rarely in recent decades. In 2005, lawmakers returned from the summer break to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But otherwise, summer is a time when workers can do some building maintenance -- technicians tinker with the underground subways and all of the escalators -- and tourists stroll freely around the rotunda.

And what do citizens think of this unplanned session? Is it worth bringing the House back to Washington for some unfinished business?

"That's what they're hired to do," says Fred Levine of Port Jefferson, N.Y.

"If business needs to be done, they've got to come back," says Marilyn Levine, also of Port Jefferson.

"Whatever they're voting on must be that important that they have to come in to a special session, so I think that's great. I think it's what they should do," says Cindy Renault of Kenosha, Wis.

But if Americans thought they could get through August without a heavy bout of congressional partisan bickering, they've got another thing coming.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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