Democrats Mull Shutdown Fight Over Coal Retirees’ Health Promise

  • Spending bill would give ex-miners temporary reprieve
  • House passes bill to fund U.S. government after Dec. 9

Senate Democrats were trying to decide Thursday whether to risk a short-term partial shutdown of the U.S. government this weekend unless Republicans agree to demands to protect the health benefits of retired miners.

“There is no consensus yet, we are still working out the strategy,” said Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy.

During a caucus meeting, Senate Democrats discussed whether to withhold votes from a needed government funding bill in order to keep a promise to retired coal miners and demonstrate to constituents -- especially those in states carried by President-elect Donald Trump -- that they’re the party of working people, according to two aides who described the private conversations under condition of anonymity.

The House voted Thursday 326-96 to pass a spending bill, H.R. 2028, that would keep the federal government running from Dec. 10 through April 28.

That measure also would extend for four months the health benefits of retired miners that will expire at month’s end under the terms of a coal company’s bankruptcy settlement.

Coal-state lawmakers led by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have been pressing to get a long-term solution before as many as 20,000 retirees and dependents start to lose coverage at the end of this month.

Trump Country

Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said she planned to join a filibuster and try to deny the 60 votes needed to position the government spending bill for final passage. Fellow Republican Rob Portman of Ohio said he’s undecided. Trump won formerly Democratic West Virginia by 42 percentage points and carried swing-state Ohio by more than 8 points.

With the House planning to leave for the year after Thursday’s session, the minority-party senators and their Republican allies had few avenues for getting a better deal for the retirees. A segment of Democrats said they want to take a stand on issues that Trump campaigned on, and the looming deadlines offered them a chance to do that right away.

“The Democrats are fighting hard RIGHT NOW for coal miners,” Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri wrote on Twitter. “Crickets from Trump.”

Manchin wants Congress to permanently extend funding for retired miners’ health care and to also shore up their pensions.

“It’s not lost on me the irony that Republicans are claiming to have support from coal country,” while only providing temporary benefits for coal miners, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Majority Whip John Cornyn said that if Manchin doesn’t back down, the Senate could remain in session over the weekend and into Monday, a delay that some senators said would be viewed dimly.

"It’s gotten to the point where the outcome is certain and the amount of pain and suffering is optional," said Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.