Congress departs, mystifying observers

No progress made on deficit, debt limit extension

By Matt Viser and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / July 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON - In 10 days, without an act of Congress, the country will not be able to pay many of its bills, triggering shockwaves through the global economy in a way that will touch most Americans. Mortgage and credit card rates are expected to spike. Portions of the federal government will shut down. Some of the 70 million checks the government sends out each month will be at the least delayed.

But for the next two days, the marble hallways of Congress will be largely empty. Both chambers decided to take the weekend off.

Even with President Obama’s stern call for the leaders to meet with him this morning to come up with an alternative plan, most rank-and file members are not expected to return.

The decision to leave Capitol Hill - with little to show toward either a long-term budget solution or a debt limit extension - has baffled some observers. For those whose livelihoods depend on the federal government, it’s downright infuriating.

“We got no sense they were doing anything in the first place,’’ said Horace Small, executive director of the Boston-based Union of Minority Neighborhoods. “This is just so par for the [expletive] course.’’

Anthony Cignoli, a political consultant from Springfield, said he does not understand how lawmakers can think it’s OK to leave. “Take all of August off if they want to, but get this done now. If this does not get done by Aug. 2, people will remember they went home this weekend.’’

It is not as if the lawmakers’ standing with the public can afford to take a hit. Polls indicate that as time evaporates before the Aug. 2 debt limit deadline, so too the public’s patience. A Washington Post-ABC phone poll of 1,001 adults from July 14-17 found that 63 percent of the respondents said they may want a new representative in the 2012 elections, the record highest for the poll.

Earlier in the week, lawmakers were calling their families, telling them not to expect them home until the issue was solved. Workers at the US Capitol were figuring out weekend shifts to keep the cafeterias open.

But on Wednesday night, House Republican leaders decided not to stay, alerting members that they would be finished for the week on Friday afternoon. The Senate Democratic leadership pledged to stay, working every day until a solution is complete.

“I want everyone that can hear my voice to understand that time is of the essence. We are running out of time,’’ majority leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “It is just untoward - and that’s the kindest word I can say - for the House of Representatives to be out this weekend. What a bad picture that shows this country.’’

But by yesterday morning, Reid decided that the Senate, too, would be out for the weekend.

In the logic of Capitol Hill, the decision not to meet this weekend makes sense. The deals are largely being crafted behind closed doors by a small number of people - and with no plan to vote on, they say, it would be a waste of time to keep everyone here for little more than political stagecraft.

“It’s symbolic anyway,’’ said Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville. “We all know there are six people doing this. The rest of us are just out here like a rugby match, pushing and shoving.’’

In his stern rebuke of Republicans last night, Obama raised the specter of anger from everyday Americans. “The American people, I think, are fed up with political posturing and an inability for politicians to take responsible action,’’ he said.

By not staying in Washington, lawmakers are only fueling that anger, some contend.

“Everybody’s imagining more unemployment, are seniors going to get their unemployment checks?’’ Lew Finfer, a community activist and director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said of the fears if Congress fails to complete a deal. “It’s like this bad fairy tale that’s being played out in our lives. It’s completely frustrating that the leadership isn’t there.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at Theo Emery can be reached at