They went right up to the brink, but Senate Democrats said on Friday night that they never intended to shut the federal government down over a dispute over coal miner benefits.
Though they took a hard line against a GOP proposal to fund the government through April — because it only extended retired miners’ health insurance for four months — Democrats admitted as the midnight shutdown deadline drew near that they would not force a brief funding lapse over the matter.
“We’re not going to shut down the government. We’re going to keep it open,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “We’re going to provide the votes so we don’t shut down.”
The funding bill needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate and roll calls will occur on Friday evening.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio led the charge from coal state Democrats, and they declined to say explicitly whether they would use Senate procedure to force a brief shutdown over their demands for a year-long insurance extension.
But several of those Democrats, including Manchin, had agreed earlier on Thursday that they would not shut down the government but would use the shutdown threat to bring attention to the miners’ plight and continue the fight in January, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the meeting.
At a press conference after his colleagues relented, Manchin admitted that the party didn’t have enough votes to defeat the spending bill.
“I don’t think we’re gonna get to the 41 [votes] as of tonight, but we have support to take this fight on,” Manchin said.
Given the lack of appetite among Democrats to force a shutdown over the matter, Republicans were unmoved by opposition’s threats. Early Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the only solution is for coal-state Senate Democrats to take “yes for an answer,” as a bloc of Democratic senators continued fighting the short-term government funding measure.
The issue was serious enough for Manchin that he postponed a planned meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Friday. Manchin, who is reportedly in the mix for a Cabinet position for the incoming administration, will now meet with Trump on Monday, a spokesman for the senator said.
Before Friday night’s resolution, Manchin had insisted that Democrats would settle for nothing less than a year-long extension of health-care benefits for those miners. But McConnell told POLITICO they will have to settle for what they have now and continue the fight in 2017.
“The difficulty here is they are having a hard time taking yes for an answer. I represent a lot of coal miners, I’m concerned about this issue. I had hoped we’d get a year. But we’ve got until the end of April to get at it again,” McConnell said in an interview on Friday — a point he stressed on the Senate floor later that morning.
As he relented hours later, Manchin said he took McConnell at his word.
“He said he was confident the retirees would not lose benefits next year, including more than 3,000 in his home state of Kentucky,” Manchin said. “And I believe him.”
The last-minute cave by Democrats began on Friday afternoon, when Manchin and other coal-state Democrats had scheduled a press conference to press the benefits issue, but it was abruptly canceled minutes before it was set to begin.
“They realize that they’ve taken the wrong hostage because they really have no recourse,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of Senate Democrats. “They can’t possibly get the result they want. This is just sort of how long you want to extend the pain.”
“It’s about as often as an eclipse that we spend the entire weekend here,” said GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Democrats tried to explain they are not angling toward a shutdown. But because the House is gone for the year and Senate Republicans aren’t budging, that was the most likely outcome to the battle if Democrats continued resisting the spending bill.
Democrats aren’t pleased that the continuing resolution, which funds the federal government until April 28, includes only a four-month extension of health care benefits for thousands of coal miners in Appalachian states. Four months is insufficient, Democrats say, particularly because coal miners receive notices that their benefits are expiring three months in advance, which means they will get those letters again in January.
The House passed the measure with an overwhelming 326-96 vote, and lawmakers there have already left Washington for the year.
Republicans said that Democrats were not getting enough blame for their brinkmanship over the mining matter.
“I’m still waiting for CNN to do that little time clock they always do everytime Republicans are about to close down,” said Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller.
As of Friday afternoon, federal agencies had begun preparing for a brief shutdown, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“At this time, prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action,” said an OMB spokesperson. “It is our hope that this work will ultimately be unnecessary and that there will be no lapse in appropriations.”
While Manchin’s Republican colleague from West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito, indicated she would likely vote against the bill, she noted that futile budget brinkmanship was not the prudent strategy.
“Four months, while it’s meager and frustrating and disappointing does give us the opportunity to fight another day. Because if the whole thing goes down, they’re going to lose everything,” she said. “I don’t think shutting down the government is the best way to go about it.”
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