The holidays have many Americans counting the days until they can kick back, relax and celebrate again with their families and friends.
For members of Congress, that count is especially short.
Both the House and the Senate are away for their customary Thanksgiving recess this week, and the House plans only 12 more days of business this year.
The long trend toward shorter stints in Washington and longer “district work periods” back home has continued in the 114th Congress, and next year looks to be even more relaxed. Congressional calendars show that the Senate plans to spend no more than 143 days legislating next year, with the House planning only 111 days in Washington.
That spare schedule reflects the demands of an election year. Unusually early national party conventions mean lawmakers will be taking the second half of July off without giving up any of their traditional August recess. And October through mid-November is cleared for campaigning ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.
But it also reflects the widespread understanding that Congress just might not have much to do next year.
Tensions between President Barack Obama and GOP congressional leaders, magnified by the political freight of an election year, mean few substantial measures have hope of advancing. And, more important, lawmakers have cleared out — or are in the process of clearing out — the few must-pass bills required to meet deadlines before the next Congress is sworn in.
“There’s a bunch of things that we could do and probably will do, but, at this point, if you look at next year, a lot of the heavy lifting for next year’s been done this year,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Perhaps most crucial was the budget deal forged between Obama and outgoing House speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, before his retirement last month. That accord set spending levels and raised the federal debt limit through 2017 and is expected to greatly ease the process of passing government funding bills through the next election, although sticking points do remain.
Both houses are expected to meet other crucial deadlines.
House and Senate conferees are working to bridge gaps on a bill to authorize six years of transportation projects, and new House speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has an internal process to smooth the passage of an omnibus appropriations measure before a possible Dec. 12 government shutdown.
Meanwhile, thorny policy issues appear to be off the table for 2016. Immigration reform proposals remain in a deep freeze, with Republicans fuming over Obama’s 2014 executive orders and Democrats unwilling to entertain any reform bill that does not offer illegal immigrants a path to legal status.
Obama’s request for a new war powers authorization to cover the fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization, made in February, has seemingly faded into political oblivion — despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Republicans say Obama already has the authority he needs.
Congressional Republicans are in much the same position as they were in 2000, and similar to the situation Democrats faced in 2008, having control of both chambers of Congress as the opposition-party president winds down his eighth year in office.
As they did then, they must now walk a fine line between providing enough of a positive agenda to defend their majorities in Washington and not getting ahead of their own party’s eventual presidential nominee.
The legislative centerpiece for 2016, however, is likely to be a fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sprawling trade deal that represents a key part of Obama’s economic and foreign policy legacy. Because its passage probably would require Republicans to support a presidential priority in an election year, there is widespread speculation that a final vote could be pushed to a post-election lame-duck session.