Policy

Manchin Backs Off Demand on CR, but It May Be Too Late to Deal

West Virginia Democrat would accept one-year extension of miner benefits

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III says he supports a compromise to extend retired coal miners’ benefits for a year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By JEREMY DILLON and BRIDGET BOWMAN
CQ Roll Call

After promising earlier this week to round up fellow Democrats to block Senate passage of a stopgap spending measure unless it included a permanent federal rescue for a depleted health insurance fund for retired coal miners, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III said Thursday night that he’d settle for a provision that supports the fund for a year, rather than the four months currently in the bill.

But it may be too late to make that deal, and the stakes are high: The continuing resolution to fund the government must be passed by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama on Friday to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight.

The House passed the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support 326-96 on Thursday. And then, its members left town for the year, essentially leaving the Senate to pass or reject the spending plan as it is.

According to Republican Senate aides involved in earlier talks with Manchin on the miners’ issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had backed the full-year extension to sustain the health care program. House leaders balked at the one-year plan, the aides said. Requests for comment from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan were not returned.

The language released Tuesday would support the health insurance fund for only the duration of the CR, which expires April 28. Manchin called that unacceptable, and started lining up Democrats to block passage.

On Thursday evening, surrounded by other Senate Democrats and a throng of coal miners standing under a West Virginia state flag, Manchin described his one-year demand as a concession.

“We’ve even negotiated down,” Manchin said. “They threw out, how about one year? We’ve taken it. Give us the one year to fight another day, four months doesn’t do a thing.”

Pressed on whether he had 41 Democratic votes to block procedural advancement of the stopgap, Manchin deflected. “We have a strong commitment from our caucus right now, I can tell you that. … We’re staying here tomorrow, we’re staying here tomorrow to get ‘er done,” he said.

[Manchin Thinks He Can Block CR Over Miner Health Benefits]

The CR provision would transfer $45 million from the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund, which is dedicated to the cleanup and reclamation of closed open-pit mines, to allow the United Mine Workers Association 1993 Benefit Plan to pay for its retirees’ health insurance through April 30.

Without the transfer, some 16,000 former coal workers and their families could lose their health benefits after Dec. 31.

Democrats are vowing to fight for the provision as the Senate remains in session Friday, and the coal-state lawmakers insisted the entire caucus is behind them.

“We have unanimity in the caucus: miners for a year and ‘Buy America,’” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, also referring to a provision in the separate water infrastructure bill. “Everybody in our caucus supports those.”

But Democrats have not made a final decision on whether they would be willing to block a vote to end debate on the CR, according to a senior Democratic aide. Lawmakers are waiting to see whether they can make any progress Friday before the midnight deadline.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the incoming minority leader, said he backs the cause.

“We are going to win this fight. We cannot predict the exact path, but we are going to win this fight because we are right,” Schumer said.

“I hope that everyone will unite, Republican, Democrat, and I hope our President-elect, who talked and got to know the miners, will speak out,” he added.

[Stopgap Adds Money for Flint, Paves Way for Mattis Confirmation Vote]

The senators reached out to President-elect Donald Trump to weigh in his support for the retired miners’ health care — a demographic he overwhelmingly won and promised to help in the presidential election.

In a letter sent Thursday, the lawmakers outlined the reasoning and steps to what they are looking to achieve, in hopes that Trump would send an edict out to Republican leadership to support their cause.

Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn indicated that leadership would not budge from the four-month extension language included in the CR. “They’re not going to get what they want,” the Texas Republican told reporters. “They ought to actually be grateful for what they got.”

Cornyn said he approached Manchin on Wednesday, saying he would be willing to pledge to work on the issue in the new Congress, but Manchin said he’s going to make this an issue now.

“I tried to engage him but he didn’t seem too interested,” Cornyn said, when asked if there were ongoing talks. “He seemed sort of determined to head down this road, which I told him he’d end up with nothing.”

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