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Despite looming shutdown, Capitol Hill is a ghost town

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

With the clock ticking to a March 4 government shutdown, you might imagine the Capitol would be buzzing with lawmakers seeking to cut deals, make impassioned speeches and do everything they could to strike a deal on spending.

You'd be wrong.

House lawmakers stayed until 4:41 a.m. Saturday to finish up a spending bill to keep the government open, and sent it over to the Senate — only to be met with an empty chamber. Senators had closed up shop two days before and went home for a 10-day break to honor George Washington's birthday.

"We will do our work, but where is the Senate? They're on vacation," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee who ran part of the floor debate over cutting spending for the new health care law. "Here we are knocking up against a March 4 deadline and they're missing the deadline again."

Indeed, the corridors of the Capitol have been empty this entire week, with both the House and Senate adjourned, leaving their leaders to try negotiations through press releases, Twitter messages and telephone conference calls.

"Less than 90 days into the job, House Republicans seem more interested in shutting down the government than showing the leadership necessary create jobs and help the economy recover," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said in a press release Thursday, responding to Republicans' press releases from the day before.

Aides said the Washington's birthday holiday has been on the books for weeks, and pointed out that both the House and Senate are off.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in his home state this week, delivering a speech to the Nevada legislature and urging them to ban prostitution statewide.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, was in Florida this week doing fundraising. The speaker also found time to hit the golf course.

Other lawmakers, including many freshman, were at home in their districts, holding town hall gatherings and meeting with constituents.

A message left with Senate Democratic leaders' office seeking comment on the schedule wasn't returned, but a Senate Republican leadership aide said they are confident a shutdown will be avoided and Congress will pass a "continuing resolution," or "CR," in time.

"Speaker Boehner has already said that the House will pass a short-term CR, and this will give Harry Reid time to find a solution to reduce spending and keep the government operational," the aide said.

Staffers are doing some negotiating this week, though there is not yet a deal to bridge the gap between House Republicans' bill, which would cut $61 billion from 2010 spending levels, and Senate Democrats, who want to extend 2010 spending levels into April and said then they'll be willing to negotiate some cuts.

Senate Democratic leaders have already rejected House Republicans' bill, and President Obama has said he'll veto it.

On Thursday, top Democratic lawmakers released reports they said document how the cuts will hurt the poor and leave the federal government unable to fulfill basic functions such as immigration enforcement.

House Republicans said they've done their work. They stayed in session until 1 a.m. twice, worked until 3:43 a.m. another day, and then pushed until nearly 5 a.m. Saturday morning to get their bill done. Along the way, they considered hundreds of amendments and held more than 100 recorded votes.

The Senate, meanwhile, hasn't touched spending since before Christmas. Instead, senators have worked on a bill to update federal aviation rules, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on Feb. 17.

Senators then left Washington, adjourning by unanimous consent, which means no lawmakers objected to the decision.

Freshmen House members were incredulous.

"It's just remarkable that we have this deadline looming and apparently they're not working on it," said Rep. Robert Hurt, Virginia Republican. "It's incumbent on them to get the work done — either adopt the measure as we've sent it over or get it back to us as soon as possible so we can work out the details."

Earlier this week freshman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, New York Republican, said she "must wonder why the Senate is taking this week off if they are so concerned about a shutdown on March 4th."

Mr. Rehberg, the Montana lawmaker who has already announced he is seeking to run against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester next year, said it was clear to him senators are trying to stall. He said voters will show their displeasure.

"When a team stalls to win, they start getting booed from the audience," he said.

Democrats, though, counter that it is the GOP's cuts that will draw voters' ire.

"Republicans seem to want to take a meat ax to programs that keep our communities safe and keep our economy growing. We believe that we need to use a scalpel, not a meat ax," Mr. Reid told reporters in a Tuesday conference call, just hours after he delivered his speech to the Nevada legislature.

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