They keep the Senate open this week to block high-level White House appointments.
The Senate wrapped up its business with unusual dispatch on Tuesday. Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, the designated presiding officer, called the chamber to order. "Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until Friday," he said. He banged the gavel, and then he left. It took 22 seconds.
But what the session lacked in depth, it made up for in political purpose. By keeping the Senate in session, however briefly, Democrats prevent President Bush from making high-level appointments while Congress is in recess, thus avoiding the process of Senate confirmation.
"We're preserving the Constitution," Senator Webb said, after the pro-forma session. "It's appropriate given how [the Bush administration] is abusing the confirmation process."
From confirmations to annual spending bills and war funding, Mr. Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are at odds – with both sides settling into procedural trench warfare. Democrats are playing defense since they lack the 60 votes to prevent a Senate filibuster or the two-thirds in both chambers needed to overturn a presidential veto.
A pro-forma session to block recess appointments is a new tactic for lawmakers. Since the late 1980s, party leaders have talked about the possibility of using such sessions to stop recess appointments as well as pocket vetoes, which allow the president to keep a bill unsigned until the legislative session is over. But this week marks the first time it's been carried out.
"It's one of those small things that can be instantly effective," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It also reflects the utter lack of trust that Democrats have vis-à-vis the president and the belief that he will exploit every opportunity provided him."