Democrats are pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown, with coal country Senate Democrats leading a strategy to oppose a GOP spending bill if their demands aren’t met for a longer extension of expiring health care benefits for coal miners.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of , who are both up for reelection in 2018 from states won by Donald Trump, are leading the charge to get a better deal from Republican leaders. And their push helped hardened resistance to the GOP throughout the rest of the 46-member Democratic caucus as the day went on. But Republicans say they will not renegotiate a four-month extension of coal miner health benefits and that Democrats have lost all leverage after the House passed the spending bill, 326-96, and then promptly left town.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set in motion votes to pass the bill, leaving Democrats only procedural tactics to delay the measure through Friday’s funding deadline — which would put Senate Democrats in line to be blamed for a potential government shutdown. Flanked by coal miners during a bitingly cold outdoor news conference on Thursday evening, Manchin insisted this is “not a shutdown issue” and maintained he has a “strong commitment” from his Democratic colleagues to stand firm and demand a yearlong health care extension.
“I just want to say to everybody here, we are going to win this fight. I can’t predict the exact path, but we are going to win this fight because we’re right,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the ascending Democratic leader. “We want to get these beautiful people their due, and we won’t stop ’til we do.”
Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), met privately with Manchin and Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Warner of Virginia to hash out the matter on Thursday afternoon. This followed an hours-long Democratic caucus meeting that ginned up the party in opposition to the government funding measure — which did not include a yearlong insurance extension for miners — and a water infrastructure bill that excluded “Buy America” provisions.
“A few months extension is not sufficient,” Warner said after meeting with party leaders. He chuckled when asked whether he was comfortable with a shutdown. “The solution is pretty easy. It is for our Republican friends to get this fixed.”
But after all those meetings, Democrats have not come up with a viable plan to achieve their goals or rule out a government shutdown. Their hope is that they can persuade the House to unanimously pass a bill with the health care extension in it, a long-shot plan that GOP leaders say is entirely implausible.
“The House can do things when they leave. Three people show up and they do it,” Brown said in an interview. “That’s a solution.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said the time for negotiation is over.
“The House just took its last votes of the year,” she said after the spending bill passed the House.
The Senate will hold a rare Friday session to try to work out a last minute deal and avert a shutdown.
Republicans said that despite their tactics, Democrats are going to be on the losing end of the fight. With the House slated to leave for the year on Thursday afternoon, it became impossible for the Senate to amend the spending legislation without hauling back House members later. And Senate Republicans said their members are increasingly irked by Brown and Manchin’s fight.
“They’re not going to get what they want. They ought to actually be grateful for what they got,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. Manchin “can make life more difficult for everybody else and kill a lot of good legislation. It’s not going to advance his issue.”
“If Republicans want to shut it down, they will,” shot back Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “We are all committed. We want to find health care for miners and widows for a year.”
Republican aides argued that it was only through McConnell’s advocacy for miners that the four-month health care extension is even in the bill. One senior Republican source said that the opportunity for negotiating further is “history” now that the House is gone.
On the line is health care coverage for more than 8,000 West Virginia miners and for thousands more in other Appalachian states. A Democratic aide said that even with the four-month extension miners will get cancellation notices in January.
So Democrats said it wasn’t enough and that the GOP was turning its back on the working class voters who just elected Donald Trump. Heitkamp said that Democrats believe “there has been a renewed interest in these types of iossues with the election of president-elect Trump.”
“They totally gave the back of their hand to miners,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told reporters. “Now, who’s for the working people? Where is Donald Trump on miners? Crickets.”
Heitkamp and McCaskill are also up for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump won resoundingly. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, another state Trump won, has joined Manchin and Brown in objecting to routine procedural requests. On Wednesday evening, Brown objected to a resolution observing the Pearl Harbor anniversary.
Under Senate procedure, Manchin and Brown could hold up the spending bill until Sunday, though a blockade of that length would take efforts from more Democratic senators than just those two. The government shuts down at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday without congressional action. Cornyn said that Senate won’t leave until it wraps up its work, which may mean weekend work and a Monday session.
Manchin’s West Virginia colleague, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, also said she will oppose the spending legislation. But the funding bill is likely to pass when it gets a vote, Republicans said.
“They don’t have the votes,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “It’s just a question of how much they want to drag it out. Right now, sounds like a lot.”
Manchin is scheduled to go to Trump Tower on Friday morning, just hours before the Friday shutdown deadline, and according to news reports, he might be interviewing for a job in the Trump administration.
The moderate Democrat said he would “absolutely” cancel the meeting if the senatorial dispute continued.
“I’m supposed to go in the morning, so we’ll see,” Manchin said. “I’m sure people would understand [if I canceled]. I’ve got to be here and voting.”
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers assured reporters a government shutdown would not happen. Asked whether his committee would have to draft a three-day stopgap bill in case the Senate doesn’t clear the continuing resolution by Friday night, he said. “That call will come from leadership. We’ll be ready if that happens.” Asked if he would be getting on a plane after the House’s final votes this afternoon, he said, “No I’m not.”
Further scrambling the situation, Democrats are trying to amend water infrastructure legislation passed by the House to include permanent “Buy America” language. The fights are becoming intertwined because the spending bill and water bill are the last two major pieces of legislation in Congress this year.
“We’ll see how this unfolds. We haven’t made a final decision” on whether to block those bills, said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The legislation, which would maintain current funding and policy for the government through April 28, must be passed by midnight Friday. Lawmakers are eager to get home and the bill, which House Republicans unveiled Tuesday night, is largely free of controversy. And as the last train leaving the station for the 114th Congress, the so-called continuing resolution is serving as a prime vehicle for other sought-after measures designed to appeal to members on both sides of the aisle.
Elana Schor and Kaitlyn Burton contributed to this report.
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