Coal-state Democrats who are threatening a government shutdown over health benefits for retired miners should “take yes for answer” and stop stalling a short-term spending bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.
One of the lawmakers in question signaled he might be prepared to do just that ahead of a midnight deadline when current spending legislation expires.
Acknowledging that Democrats were likely to lose this round, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told reporters that he and allies would take the fight for miners’ benefits back up in January.
“We will carry the momentum and win the fight in January. Keep fighting,” Manchin said. “If we aren’t successful today, we will be successful in January.”
McConnell said he understands Democrats’ frustration, but he said the stopgap spending bill ensures that retired miners — including thousands in his home state of Kentucky — will keep their health care through April 28.
“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course I would have,” the Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor.
McConnell said he asked Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other House leaders to fund health-care benefits for a year, as Manchin and other Democrats are seeking, but his request was denied. Republicans are wary of bailing out unionized workers and dismissive of the 70-year-old guarantee President Harry S. Truman made of lifetime benefits for miners.
The spending bill to keep the federal government operating beyond Friday’s midnight deadline has been stuck in the Senate as Democrats facing re-election in 2018, including Manchin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, fight for a one-year extension for the miners’ health benefits rather than the temporary fix.
McConnell said the temporary extension is the best lawmakers are going to get, especially since the House has already passed the spending bill and gone home for a three-week holiday.
Coal-state Democrats have pressed President-elect Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed coal champion, to intervene with Republicans. Manchin, who’s in the running to be Energy secretary, will meet with Trump on Monday and said he expects to raise the coal miners’ issue.
Trump won West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states in Appalachia and the Midwest with heavy support from working-class voters in coal and steel communities. Democrats are waging a high-stakes fight a month after an abysmal showing with those voters that secured a GOP monopoly in Washington next year with a congressional majority.
Manchin called the GOP proposal to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16,500 retired union coal miners “horrendous” and “inhumane” and accused Republicans of turning their backs on people who built the country and made it great.
Democrats called on Trump to uphold a campaign promise to help coal miners by persuading Republican leaders to adopt a broader bill that would protect health care and pension benefits for the next decade. The Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee approved the $3 billion bill in September, but the measure has stalled in the full Senate.
“Who’s for the working people? Where’s Donald Trump on miners?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, who also faces re-election in 2018.
Missing in action on the latest Democratic fight were two Republicans — Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — who had backed the broader bill when faced with tough re-election fights in November. Without mentioning their names, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey referred to their absence now that the two had comfortably returned to the Senate.
“Members who were running for re-election got to go home and say ... ‘we’ll take care of it when we come back after the elections.’ Well, here we are,” he said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Portman had privately pressed Ryan and McConnell, to no avail. Aides to Toomey did not return repeated calls for comment.
The dispute over the miners’ benefits was not the only one holding up action in the Senate as lawmakers sought to complete their work for the year.
The House on Thursday cleared the government-funding bill and another bill authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and one to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., vowed to filibuster the massive water projects bill, saying it favors corporate farmers over fishermen and endangered species. It appeared to be an uphill struggle, in part because her California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, favors the changes for the distribution of the state’s water resources.
Democrats’ options are limited given that House members are gone and won’t consider changes to either bill.