Shutdown threat eases as Dems signal retreat on miners’ aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate headed to a vote averting a government shutdown at midnight Friday as coal-state Democrats beat a tactical retreat and promised to continue their fight next year for months-long health care benefits for retired miners.

“We had no intention of shutting down the government,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., adding that Democrats would provide enough votes to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep the government operating through April 28.

The extended fight over the miners’ benefits was intended to “highlight the seriousness of this issue,” Schumer said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led the fight of coal-state Democrats who demanded a one-year extension for the miners rather than the shorter, four-month fix in the spending bill. Faced with Republicans unwilling to agree to the robust coverage and the departure of the House lawmakers, the Democrats relented.

But not without several speeches, with miners watching from the Senate’s visitors’ galleries.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Manchin stressed the importance of coal as an energy source and the contributions of miners. “What 12 hours of the day do you not want electricity? … Heat?” he asked.

The high-stakes fight gave Democrats, who suffered devastating election losses a month ago at the hands of working-class voters, a chance to cast themselves and not the GOP as the champion of the common man. Manchin was joined by other coal-state Democrats from states Donald Trump won last month, including Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“We’re just getting warmed up,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., vowing a fight next year. “These miners and their families kept their promise, put their lives at risk. … It’s not too difficult for a senator or House member to keep a promise.”

The Senate was on track to vote late Friday night, just two hours before the deadline, to send the spending bill to President Barack Obama.

The underlying funding bill would keep the government running through April 28 to buy time for the incoming Trump administration and Congress to wrap up more than $1 trillion in unfinished agency budget work. It also provides war funding, disaster aid for Louisiana and other states, and an expedited process for considering Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis.

Coal-state Democrats had pressed Trump, a self-proclaimed coal supporter, to intervene with Republicans. Manchin, mentioned as possible candidate for energy secretary or secretary of state in the new administration, will meet with Trump 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.

“Who’s for the working people? Where’s Donald Trump on miners?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who faces re-election in 2018.

Seventy years ago, President Harry S. Truman guaranteed a lifetime of health and pension benefits for retired miners to avert a strike.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the four-month extension was better than nothing. McConnell himself represents thousands of miners in the struggling coal industry and said he tried to get a longer solution in talks with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

“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.

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.

The House closed up Thursday for a three-week vacation, creating a dynamic in which the Senate had little choice but to adopt the stopgap measure. Both the funding measure and a water projects bill passed by sweeping bipartisan votes.

“Working all night and into the weekend won’t change the inevitable outcome,” said No. 2 Republican John Cornyn of Texas.

But Democratic opponents of the popular water projects bill, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., showed no signs of giving up, blasting provisions to divert more water to corporate farmers. A vote to overcome a filibuster of that measure, which would also clear the way for long-delayed funding of $170 million to help Flint, Michigan, to fix its lead-tainted water system, was to follow action on the stopgap spending bill.

Democrats griped that GOP negotiators on the water bill dumped a permanent “Buy America” provision requiring U.S.-produced steel be used in water projects. But that effort lost steam Friday; the projects covered by the measure would be part of the requirement anyway.

The spending bill also would provide $7 million to reimburse the New York Police Department for the cost of security around Trump Tower in Manhattan, far less than the $35 million the city requested.