Shutdown Threat Ends in The Senate

Government Spending Dow Jones Newswires

(Reuters)

The Senate on Friday night passed a short-term spending bill to fund the government through April after Democrats pulled back from a threat to hold up the bill over a dispute involving health benefits for retired coal miners.

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The measure passed, 63-36, after Democrats forced Republicans to engage in a nail-biting search for votes to clear a procedural hurdle. Its passage reflected a desire by both parties to keep the government open past Saturday, when funding was set to expire. The White House announced early Saturday that President Barack Obama had signed the bill.

The debate and tension surrounding the vote provided a preview of the battles shaping up for next year, when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office and Democrats intend to pressure him and his GOP colleagues to live up to campaign promises that drew white, working-class voters into the Republican column.

In a show of frustration, 22 Democrats and one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voted against the spending bill, following the lead of Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who had set up a blockade against the measure to bring renewed attention to the plight of retired coal miners and their widows, whose health plans were due to lapse at the end of the year. The government-funding bill will extend those benefits for an additional four months, a timetable Democrats said was insufficient.

"How do you think we won World War I and World War II? Domestic energy," Mr. Manchin said to reporters. "Where do you think it came from? It came from out of the ground," he said, complaining that the country needed to show more courtesy to the workforce that met its energy needs.

For nearly an hour before the bill passed, the Senate was transfixed by the prospect that Republicans might come up short in their bid to round up 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle. Democrats held back votes, prompting GOP leaders to pressure coal-country Republicans such as Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to vote in favor of advancing the bill.

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Mr. Manchin had sought to rustle up enough opposition to block the spending bill, which keeps the government running through April 28. Current funding had been set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Saturday. Although Mr. Manchin came up short, Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) promised to continue the fight next year.

The health benefits were slated to run out for more than 16,000 miners at the end of December. Four more months, Mr. Manchin said, "is not only a nonstarter, that is inhumane. "

The centrist Democrat is under consideration by Mr. Trump's transition team as a possible secretary of state or energy. Mr. Manchin, who is up for re-election in 2018, was scheduled to meet with Mr. Trump on Monday.

The spending bill passed the House on Thursday in a 326-96 vote.

Pointing to the overwhelming House vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on the Senate floor Friday that it was too late to make changes to the bill. But he said he was confident Congress wouldn't let the miners' health-care benefits expire in the spring, when the extension ends.

"It is my intention that miners' health benefits not expire in April. I'm going to work with my colleagues to prevent that," Mr. McConnell said. "This is a good time [for Democrats] to take yes for an answer."

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Eric Schultz expressed support for the stand that Mr. Manchin and others were taking on the issue of coal-miner health benefits.

"These are coal miners who work for decades in treacherous conditions and who earn these benefits. Unfortunately, the proposal that Republicans are floating only takes care for them for a few months. We believe that's not right," Mr. Schultz said Friday.

The root of this week's fight goes back decades. The United Mine Workers of America won promises from the federal government for lifetime pension and retiree health benefits for its members, starting in 1946 under President Harry Truman.

Over the years, the funding of miners' pension and retiree health benefits has become problematic as coal companies have declared bankruptcy, leaving fewer companies to contribute to multiemployer plans, and retirees began to outnumber active miners amid greater automation.

Congress passed measures in the 1990s and 2000s to shore up the benefits, including allowing the interest from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to be used to cover retiree health costs. The fund, originally created to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mine sites, is fed by taxes on coal companies.

In 2006, Congress allowed the use of general U.S. Treasury funds to cover any deficit in the UMWA retiree health plan for the first time, as well as to pay out money to states and tribes that had already cleaned up their abandoned mines.

Today, the union says about 16,300 retired miners and widows could lose their health coverage on Jan. 1 if Congress doesn't appropriate funding.

There is currently about $39 million in funding for retiree health care and roughly $100 million is paid out annually, according to Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman.

Cecil Roberts, president of the UMWA, has called the proposal to provide four months of funding "a slap in the face" to coal miners.

"America's miners put their lives on the line to provide the fuel that built our nation," Mr. Roberts said. "Is their reward to become a perpetual political football, doomed to beg every four months for the benefits they earned and our nation promised them?"

At the same time, the union and members of Congress from coal states are seeking additional funding to keep the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan from becoming insolvent. The plan currently covers 89,000 retirees and widows and has been in critical status for the past two years.

The union says retirees in the pension plan live in all 50 states, though a majority reside in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and other major coal-producing states. The average pension benefit is $586 a month for a retired miner or a surviving spouse, according to the union.  

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