Policy

Senate Averts Shutdown With Little Time to Spare

Senators came close to a shutdown over coal miner health care

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III voted against the continuing resolution (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo).

By BRIDGET BOWMAN and NIELS LESNIEWSKI CQ Roll Call

The Senate averted a government shutdown late Friday night, with less than an hour to spare. 

At the start of the day Friday, it was not clear if there would be a partial government shutdown at midnight. But shortly after 11 p.m., the Senate approved a four-month stopgap funding measure to keep the government funded in a 63-36 vote. The House overwhelmingly passed the measure on Thursday.

The bill, known as a continuing resolution, extends funding levels through April 28. It includes more than $10 billion in war funds; $170 million in aid to Flint, Michigan, which has been grappling with a water-contamination crisis; and expedites the process for allowing president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Defense secretary to serve.

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

But one provision looked like it could have brought down the entire bill.

Senate Democrats appeared poised to go to the brink of a shutdown over a provision extending retired coal miners’ health care for four months, or the length of the CR. More than 16,000 miners faced losing their health benefits by Dec. 31 due to an insolvent program.

Sen. Joe Manchin III said a mere four-month extension was unacceptable, and the West Virginia Democrat led the charge for a full-year extension instead.

Manchin suggested he may have had the votes to block the motion to end debate on the spending measure, which requires 60 votes to pass. But Democrats didn’t actually intend to do so. 

Threat of Government Shutdown Appears Lifted ]

Manchin and the other coal-state Democrats agreed with Senate Democratic leaders that they would not block the continuing resolution, but would rather use the shutdown threat as a way to highlight the health care and pension needs of the miners, a senior Democratic aide said.

The aide said the decision was made during a Democratic Caucus meeting Thursday in the Capitol’s Lyndon B. Johnson room.

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said as much on the Senate floor. The New York Democrat joined the coal-state Democrats on the floor Friday evening, where they announced they would keep fighting, but would allow the government to remain open.

“We’re going to provide the votes to make sure we won’t shut down, though there are so many people who want to stand with the miners,” Schumer said. “We never intended to shut down the government.”

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

He said the Democrats’ intention was “very real.” They aimed to highlight the issue and ensure that it would not be forgotten when the next Congress convenes on Jan. 3rd.

“I think we’ve made our point,” Schumer said. “I don’t care if people don’t like being here on a Friday night. I know people have other obligations. But those obligations are nothing compared to our obligation to these miners.”

Schumer, effectively serving in his new role as minority leader, held back a collection of Democratic votes for the continuing resolution until it was clear Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would need them to get the 60 votes needed to limit debate on the spending measure, a person familiar with the move confirmed.

This was apparent from the gallery, with a group of Democratic caucus members including members of Schumer's leadership team gathered in the well and holding back their votes.

Manchin vowed after the floor speeches to keep fighting for a permanent fix to the insolvent health care and pension programs for retired coal miners.

“Our delegation is committed to fight this thing through,” he said at a press conference.

“If nothing else we’ve been able to elevate, first of all, what the coal miners have done for this country, the respect that they should be getting,” Manchin said. “Next of all, being able to truly have a pathway forward to get a long-term fix.”

Will CR Potholes Become Democratic Roadblocks? ]

The West Virginia senator acknowledged there is no guarantee there will be a solution in the coming months. But he said Democrats are more united on the issue than ever before, and more lawmakers understand what’s at stake.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would work to prevent the health care programs from expiring at the end of April.

“My request to the House was to fund it for a full year,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor Friday morning. “But we'll be back at it in April, and I think it's highly unlikely that we'll take it away.”

McConnell and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, also a Kentucky Republican, both preferred a one-year extension, according to GOP aides. But the House GOP opted for a four-month extension instead.

Manchin will likely face a similar dynamic when Congress convenes next year. But he said Democrats are willing to fight House lawmakers over the issue, and suggested Senate Democrats could block House bills that are sent to the Senate.

“We’re going to use every tactic,” Manchin said. “I think that message is being sent loud and clear.”

Continuing Spending

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.

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