Policy

Will CR Potholes Become Democratic Roadblocks?

Continuing resolution text released Tuesday contains items Senate Democrats don’t like

Sen. Joe Manchin said he would slow Senate business unless assistance to retired miners gets full funding. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

By NIELS LESNIEWSKI and BRIDGET BOWMANCQ Roll Call

The release of a continuing resolution Tuesday evening has made clear the potholes that could get in the way of Congress making a quick exit from the Capitol by Friday when funding for the government expires.

The CR unveiled Tuesday would run through April 28 of next year, as expected, and would avoid an end-of-the-year crisis if enacted. In addition to extending operations, the bill includes extra money for overseas operations by departments like Defense and State.

It also would provide the customary $157,000 annual pension benefit to President Barack Obama when he leaves office in January.

“This legislation is just a band aid, but a critical one,” outgoing House Appropriations chairman, Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers said. “It will give the next Congress the time to complete the annual Appropriations process, and in the meantime, take care of immediate national funding needs.” 

Both the 21st Century Century Cures bill and the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill are lined up for what should be easy passage. But the fates of the continuing resolution to fund the government past Friday, as well as a broad water infrastructure bill, remain up in the air with Democrats potentially throwing up these roadblocks:

1. Coal miner health care: A group of Senate Democrats vow to block and slow down legislation unless there is action on protecting health care for retired coal miners, thousands of whom are poised to lose coverage at the end of the year due to a shortfall in their retirement plans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he was pushing for a miner provision with health care benefits that would be provided only for the duration of the continuing resolution.

Much of the pension and other benefits guaranteed to the miners are now provided to their widows.

To extend the benefits for only four months was “cruel and unusual,” West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said. He would hold up legislation until there was a long-term solution, he said. The push for the Miner Protection Act has bipartisan support from many coal country lawmakers, but McConnell has not been on board.

2. Gen. James Mattis waiver: President-elect Donald Trump’s planned nomination of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be secretary of Defense will require legislation to overcome a provision of current law that requires the Defense secretary to have been out of military uniform for at least seven years.

The CR would set up an expedited procedure for considering such a bill on the Senate floor if introduced early in the new Congress, bypassing the potentially laborious process of moving to limit debate to break a potential filibuster. Under the expedited procedure for the one-time exemption to the seven-year rule, 60 votes would still be required to get the measure through the Senate.

“There’s a strong sentiment opposing any rules changes in the CR,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said earlier Tuesday. “I believe that the Trump operation came up with the word ‘waiver?’ It’s a law. It’s not a waiver. It’s a law.”

Durbin, also the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, was unsure if the Mattis waiver alone could doom the underlying spending package.

“I hope it doesn’t come to it,” Durbin said.

3. Flint aid: The spending bill would provide some $170 million to address the lead-contaminated water infrastructure in Flint, Michigan. But there has been concern on the Democratic side that absent authorization language, the Trump administration could make an effort to send the money somewhere else.

It is over that authorization that the CR is tied to the fate of the Water Resources Development Act, which is also awaiting consideration.

4. California drought: A last-minute provision added to that water projects bill has angered a number of Democrats. The provision would address the drought in California, but Sen. Barbara Boxer says it is a “poison pill” that could lead to contaminated water, loss of jobs, and could compromise the Endangered Species Act. Durbin said, “I think there’s a pretty strong sentiment against WRDA at this point.” 

Republicans are “using the people of Flint” as leverage, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, in order to get the controversial California drought deal championed by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy through as part of WRDA.

“Right now, they’re being held hostage,” Stabenow said.

5. Buy America: A handful of Democrats are also concerned that a “Buy America” provision was removed from WRDA. The provision would have required American-made steel and iron to be used in drinking water projects. Democrats plan to introduce an amendment to WRDA to add the provision back onto the bill, though it’s not clear if it’s removal would ultimately lead to opposing the broader infrastructure bill.

“This was the first major test for President-elect Trump’s promises to put America first and it failed because Washington establishment Republicans chose China and Russia over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said. “While President-elect Trump remains silent, we will continue to fight for American jobs.”