The Obama administration on Thursday harshly criticized Republican congressional leaders for not adequately addressing expiring health and pension benefits for coal miners, as well as aid for Flint, Michigan, and its beleaguered water system, and would not rule out a partial government shutdown over the issues.
With funding for federal programs and agencies due to expire Friday at midnight, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t say if President Barack Obama would sign a five-month continuing resolution that easily passed the House Thursday afternoon. “It would be a shame to shut the whole thing down just a couple weeks before Christmas,” Earnest said.
Earnest called Republicans “quite cynical” for resisting the efforts of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III and other coal-state lawmakers to use the CR to devise a long-term solution for miner benefits. Republicans are proposing to extend the benefits for the duration of the latest stopgap (through April 28) while Senate Democrats are insisting on a one-year fix.
“These are lives and livelihoods that hang in the balance, and there should be bipartisan common ground to address the needs of these 20,000 coal miners who are slated to lose their health insurance at the end of the month,” Earnest said. “It’s not lost on me the irony that Republicans are bragging about the kind of support they have from workers in coal country … and now are prepared to just extend their health care for five months.”
President-elect Donald Trump, during the general election campaign, pledged to help coal miners, saying they had been treated poorly over the last eight years. On Thursday, Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio renewed a call for Trump and congressional Republicans to resolve the matter, noting the president-elect’s campaign promise.
Meanwhile, a group of 26 miners from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky circulated on Capitol Hill on Thursday, meeting with lawmakers and pushing for a more permanent fix.
“The four month deal is an insult,” Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told Roll Call. Smith said the miners met with GOP Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rand Paul of Kentucky. They also met with Brown. Smith said the group is encouraging senators to block efforts to limit debate on the CR until a long-term solution is found. Mine Workers leadership has also been in touch with Senate leaders.
At the White House, Earnest also panned Republicans for including language in the CR providing $170 million to help Flint rebuild its water system while the authorization would come in another bill, something Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called “a trick.”
When lead contamination in the city’s water system first surfaced, Republicans blamed the federal government, Earnest noted, adding that the Obama administration has provided a “robust” response. He also pointed to Republicans’ “promise” a few months ago to allocate Flint dollars this year.
“They’ve got a responsibility to try to solve the problem. But what we’re seeing is Republicans in Congress are actually planning to leave town for the year tomorrow,” Earnest said.
Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, pledged Thursday to hold firm against Manchin and other Democrats. Earnest did not rule out Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. playing a role in helping to wrap up talks, saying Biden is “ready to serve if called.”
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have negotiated past must-pass spending measures.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.