They call it recess, but a break from Capitol Hill doesn't indicate lawmakers are all on vacation. August is a time when members of Congress return home to gauge public opinion, catch up on local issues and get out of the D.C. echo chamber. It's why what happens in their districts at town halls and on policy tours doesn't stay there; rather, it launches the agenda for the remainder of the year.
Here are the top five most important moments of recess.
1. The Steve King Anti-Immigration "Rally": When Congress departed in July, all eyes were on the anti-immigration movement. A bipartisan immigration bill had soared through the Senate and while the House seemed to be dragging its feet on the issue, the debate remained very much alive. Pundits predicted that while pro-immigration enthusiasm wouldn't move the needle much in strongly conservative congressional districts, a strong outpouring of anti-immigrant sentiment would squash the immigration reform movement.
But something surprising happened this year. Unlike in 2007, when groups such as Numbers USA launched public relations campaigns to mobilize supporters to show up at town halls and call congressional offices around the clock, immigration reform opponents have been far and few between during this recess. Even when lawmakers invite the constituency, it fails to show up.
When Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, spoke in Richmond, Va., on Aug. 14 as part of the "Stop Amnesty" tour, only a few dozen people showed up in support. King spoke in Majority Leader Eric Cantor's district. Cantor, R-Va., will be a key player on immigration reform when lawmakers return in the fall. He is also one of the key sponsors of legislation to give immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children a chance at citizenship.
If King's intention was to spook Cantor from his new embrace of citizenship for DREAMers, he failed to succeed. The rally instead signified that while reform is an uphill climb, it isn't fraught with the headwinds it faced in 2007.
2. John Boehner's Promise of a "Whale of a Fight" on the Debt Ceiling: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not had any reprieve from playing referee between the establishment and right wing of his party during the August recess. Instead, he has had to carefully navigate a plan to keep the country from defaulting on its debt or shutting down all the while keeping conservatives within his party from labeling him a sell-out.
He might have struck the balance he needed Tuesday when he promised he'd wage a "whale of a fight" on the debt ceiling during a fundraiser in Idaho.
More than 80 members of the GOP conference have put pressure on Boehner to fight a war over the first fiscal battle they will encounter in September: the continuing resolution, a stopgap measure to keep the country funded to the end of the year. Conservatives in the caucus want Boehner to defund the Affordable Care Act through the extension of the CR, a move that experts agree would ultimately lead to a government shutdown.
Boehner is advocating for a short-term continuing resolution, but promised his caucus that he wasn't surrendering entirely. He said he is willing to bring the country to the brink of default to get dollar-for-dollar cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
By promising a debt-ceiling showdown, he may be able to bring enough members of the "defund Obamacare" coalition to his side. The debt ceiling, after all, is another chance to get the spending cuts – even reforms – to the president's health care law without sparking the electoral risks that come with a government shutdown.
3. Ted Cruz Inspires Town Hall Outrage: Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has spent his recess in search of a "grass roots tsunami" to support his plan to stop Obamacare once and for all.
He hatched the plan to use the continuing resolution, a funding mechanism to keep the government functioning, to defund the Affordable Car Act. The idea is House Republicans pass a continuing resolution that funds all aspects of government except for the president's signature health care law. Most Republicans have dismissed it as unachievable and foolish, but Cruz has devoted his recess to promoting the plan, traveling with former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., across Texas.
Finding senators to back his plan has been hard to do, but the plan has caught fire at town halls across the country. From Illinois to Oklahoma, congressmen and senators have been forced to engage in tactical discussions with rowdy and disgruntled constituents. In 2010, the tea party members were giving Democrats a hard time for health care. Now, the tables have turned and the GOP is under fire for not going along with Cruz's plan.
4. Lamar Alexander Calls Out the Tea Party: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., took the opportunity this recess to vent some of his frustrations about the ideologues in his GOP conference. In an op-ed in the Tennessean newspaper, Alexander responded to calls to retire because he is too much of a compromiser in the U.S. Senate. The senator is seeking a third term in 2014.
"I know that if you only have 45 votes and you need 60 senators to get something important done like balancing the budget and fixing the debt, then you have to work with other people — that is, IF you really care about solving the problem, IF you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech," he wrote.
It matters because Alexander will face a tea party opponent in the 2014 primary and has faced a lot of criticism by the far right in Tennessee. Polls show Alexander with a comfortable lead against his opponent, but in the past, lawmakers facing tea party challengers chose to move to the right in an attempt to keep their seat. Alexander has chosen instead to respond to the criticisms head-on.
5. It Will End: Perhaps the most significant point of recess is that it is only temporary. All of the glad-handing, stump speeches, fundraisers and town halls will come to an end. In a few weeks, Congress will be back to the grind, facing deadlines to keep the government funded and missing other deadlines all together. In the end, lawmakers will have to emerge from their gerrymandered districts to the halls of the Capitol where they will have to reach across the aisle to convert their legislative promises into meaningful laws.