Senate Democrats’ Stand on CR Might Signal Tactics Shift for 2018

Spending bill showdown focused on coal miners’ benefits

The stand by Senate Democrats, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, on retired coal miners’ benefits might augur similar tactics to come on behalf of working-class voters, with an eye toward their 2018 re-elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The stand by Senate Democrats, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, on retired coal miners’ benefits might augur similar tactics to come on behalf of working-class voters, with an eye toward their 2018 re-elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:00am

It’s no secret that politics were in play as Senate Democrats who are on the ballot in 2018, many from states carried by Donald Trump, staged a shutdown showdown to highlight the plight of coal miners from states like West Virginia.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, the Mountain State’s senior senator, worked hard to hold up the continuing resolution that extended funding for federal agencies and programs through April 28 in a bid to get concessions on health care benefits for retired miners and their widows — the kind of folks who helped President-elect Donald Trump win the election.

And Democrats have begun to signal they will employ similar tactics on other policy issues affecting working-class voters, a demographic they must win back to improve their chances in the 2018 midterm elections, and if they hope to win back the White House in 2020.

At the same time, two of the Democratic incumbents who took part in the showdown may be under consideration for Cabinet positions in the Trump administration. If Trump follows through, that could improve the odds of replacing them in the Senate with a Republican in 2018, or sooner.

Manchin is one of the Democratic incumbents who’s likely in for a hard fight in 2018. Trump won West Virginia by more than 42 points, appealing to the state’s down-on-their-luck working-class population, many of them registered Democrats who felt abandoned by the party. 

“I rise today fighting for the working men and women that we all use in our commercials. Every one of us goes out and basically tries to attract working men and women to vote for us because we say we’re coming here to fight for you,” Manchin said last Friday on the Senate floor, with members of the United Mine Workers in the visitors’ gallery. “Every one of us have done those ads. Every one of us.”

The CR ultimately passed the Senate 63-36 late last Friday, with President Barack Obama moving quickly to sign it into law, averting a lapse in government funding, which was set to expire at midnight.

A futile effort?

The Manchin-led effort to get more than four months of health care benefits for retired miners and their widows had no real chance of success, with the House having already adjourned for the year after passing the stopgap funding bill the day before.

Manchin was fairly straightforward when asked by a reporter about the politics of the gambit last Friday evening. That was after he and other coal-state Democrats had agreed with their party’s Senate leaders that they would not block the continuing resolution.

“I sure don’t think it hurts from that standpoint,” Manchin said, when asked if his push for miners’ health care could help his 2018 re-election bid. “What did you expect? Why did you think I was standing there? I’m born in Farmington, West Virginia. I’m born with coal mines all around me. I’m born in a family of coal miners, and if I’m not going to stand up for them, who is?”

The politics of the Democrats’ stand was apparent to everyone. When Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn was asked about a possible re-election motive, the Texas Republican responded sarcastically.

“You think there’s politics involved?” he said.

The Democratic Caucus had decided last Thursday at a meeting in the Lyndon B. Johnson room to use the government funding deadline to press the miners’ health care issue, without actually going far enough to get the blame for a shutdown, a senior Senate Democratic aide said late last Friday.

Hours after the Thursday meeting, supportive Democrats took their fight to the lawn along the East Front of the Capitol building for a press conference. 

The scene was almost made for TV, complete with an illuminated Capitol dome in the background.

The senators stood in the bitter cold, without coats, to make their case.

Two dozen coal miners gathered behind them, with one holding a large West Virginia flag that flapped in the wind. One by one, the senators stood at the podium to say that they weren’t backing down, and that they would fight for the miners and would prevail.

“Nobody’s saying, ‘Shut the government down,’” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a member of the group pushing for a full year of miners’ benefits, told CNN last Friday. “We’re just saying, ‘Don’t go home yet, don’t leave for the holidays and enjoy our holidays while these mine worker retirees are worried about whether they’re going to have insurance three weeks from now.’” 

2018 positioning

Brown and Manchin, like fellow Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, took leading roles in the standoff that also involved a blanket blockade on consent to routine business.

They’re all up for re-election in 2018, should they choose to run. Manchin and Heitkamp are said to be seriously in the mix for Cabinet appointments in the incoming Trump administration, moves that would come with the benefit of removing incumbents that might be tougher to beat from the 2018 playing field. 

Manchin is scheduled to meet Monday with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York. Heitkamp was there Dec. 2. Both are said to be in the running for Energy secretary.

And all are top targets for Republicans, particularly given decisive Trump victories in their states.

“Sen. Sherrod Brown has officially launched an election-focused rebranding effort to soften his longstanding anti-coal record after witnessing the crushing defeat of retread Ted Strickland which included Sen. Portman earning several union endorsements like the United Mine Workers of America,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Alleigh Marré said in a statement last Friday.

In 2016, Portman touted his support from mine workers, and he was one of several Republican senators who supported the push for a better health care guarantee as part of the CR or previous bills on the floor like the bipartisan medical research package known as the 21st Century Cures Act.

GOP response

Brown was perhaps the Democrat most vocal about his doubts whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, both Kentucky Republicans, had been assertive enough in pushing for better health benefits for the miners.

“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course, I would have,” McConnell said, noting that Kentucky has a number of retired coal miners and their families under threat of losing retirement benefits. “My request to the House was that we funded it for a whole year.”

House leadership did not agree to the full-year patch, Republican aides said. The limited provision also prompted opposition from some Republicans from coal states, like West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito.

Capito did not appear with the Democrats at their outdoor news conference last Thursday, but following passage of the CR (which she voted for, after debate was limited), her office released a letter to Trump calling for him to make the full Miner Protection Act a priority.

“As you no doubt saw during your visit to West Virginia earlier this year, coal miners are hardworking men and women at the core of our state’s communities. Coal mine retirees spent decades producing the energy that has powered America’s economy,” Capito wrote. “They did so with the promise that health care coverage and a modest pension would await them in retirement.”

Bridget Bowman and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

Correction | Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly mentioned that a vacant Senate seat in North Dakota would be filled by a gubernatorial appointment. It would be filled by a special election. (If occurring within 95 days of the expiration of that Senate term, no election may be held.)