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Worst Attendance of the Year: Senators Defend Their Colleagues Skipping Town Early

Senators had all sorts of excuses for missing the last votes for the next 18 days. But some delighted in the extra attention the absences afforded them.

Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate chamber. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In a legislative chamber where the 48-hour work week has largely become the norm, the Senate wrapped up its last vote of the week on Thursday afternoon with no other votes scheduled for the next 18 days. It was the worst-attended vote of the year.

Thirty senators didn’t bother showing up to end debate on a circuit court nomination Thursday, a notable number of absences in a chamber where notably little is ever accomplished. But for the 70 senators who were on Capitol Hill, many found a way to spin the lackluster attendance.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon — the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee — boasted that his panel had “almost perfect attendance” at a closed-door Democratic meeting this morning. He recalled that only Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is on trial for allegedly accepting foreign bribes, didn’t make it.

Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado called the turnout “absolutely shocking” with a facetious laugh.

Seriously, Hickenlooper contended, his fellow senators are busy! “They’re not going off to the beach,” he told NOTUS. “Most of them are flying on CODELs to foreign countries to negotiate diplomatic relationships and to protect American interests.”

The shoddy attendance has actually been a good thing, Wyoming Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis said.

“None of the superstar people that you would like to visit with were here to interview,” she said to NOTUS. “So I’ve had a lot more interviews today.”

Lummis deftly picked up on the angst from the congressional press corp Thursday, which spent the day scrambling for content to carry them until July 8.

Media favorites like J.D. Vance of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom are on Trump’s shortlist for vice president, were absent Thursday. Powerful moderates like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Joe Manchin of West Virginia also did not make an appearance.

In the Senate’s defense, the chamber has had an unusual schedule, punctuated by the Juneteenth federal holiday on Wednesday. The Senate held a vote on Monday evening — 89 lawmakers participated — and three votes on Tuesday.

Thursday’s two votes addressed nominations on a Seventh Circuit judgeship and a representative to the African Union in which, Lummis pointed out, “Republicans, in particular, couldn’t affect the outcome.”

GOP turnout was so poor that just 15 people participated in the conference’s weekly luncheon, according to The Hill. Only 20 GOP lawmakers were on Capitol Hill at all. The host of the Republican lunch, Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, opted to serve breakfast for lunch rather than shell out on a caterer from back home.

A Republican who was around, Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, blamed Senate Democratic leadership for the “odd scheduling deal.”

“People thought it would not be worth their time or worth the money spent to fly home and then come back,” she said.

Senators, staffers and political observers have long bemoaned the Senate’s light schedule and, at times, even lighter attendance. As the November election nears and the Senate majority hangs in the balance, the typical D.C. work week has been truncated to less than 48 hours, with senators usually arriving Tuesday evening and jetting out to their home states on Thursday afternoon. (Not bad for $174,000 a year.)

Other than messaging bills on issues like in vitro fertilization and gun safety, the Senate hasn’t had much pressing legislative business to address.

Still, lawmakers present Thursday were glad to register their vote and put in some face time.

“I’m standing here,” Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma reminded NOTUS when asked about attendance.

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono — who has the farthest commute to her home state of Hawaii — sang a similar tune.

“All I know is I do my best to be here and do my job,” she said.

But reflecting on the situation broadly, one lawmaker had a quick summation ready.

“Terrible,” Republican Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS, shaking his head. “So terrible. So typical.”

Riley Rogerson is a reporter at NOTUS.