Yesterday, the House passed a stop gap sending measure designed to fund the federal government through April. The vote wasn’t even close, 326-96. Now the bill is in the Senate where Democrats are talking about shutting down the government.
Senate Democrats are threatening to force a brief government shutdown this weekend to pressure Republicans to support policies they say match promises President-elect Donald Trump made on the campaign trail to help coal country and boost American manufacturers.
Government funding is set to run out at the end of Friday and lawmakers are considering a stopgap spending bill that would keep federal agencies funded through April 28. The angry Democrats are not threatening to block the spending measure, but to threaten to miss the Friday deadline in hopes they can entice Republicans into further negotiations.
The tension over the spending bill is a sign of the possible scrambled alliances to come when Trump is inaugurated and how they could prove to be a headache for Republican leaders.
The senator fighting to have more generous medical and pension benefits for retired coal miners included in the spending bill is West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, whose state Trump won handily, in part, by promising to renew the coal industry. Manchin is one of several red state Democrats expected to face a tough reelection bid in 2018. He is set to meet with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Friday morning and it’s unclear whether they’ll discuss the issue. The Democratic senator has been floated as a possible member of Trump’s cabinet.
“I want to shut her down,” Manchin said Wednesday about the government, pointing to his anger over concerns about the miner provisions. “I mean this is ridiculous . . . You can’t throw 16,000 people out.”
About 12,500 former union miners and their families have been told their health benefits will lapse come Jan. 1, and an additional 10,000 are in danger of losing benefits at a later date. Many are also facing potential cuts to their retirement benefits due to declining coal companies being unable to make required contributions to pension funds.
The current spending bill, as I understand it, contains a provision to temporarily fund the health benefits. Manchin and Sherrod Brown are pushing for a permanent fix. Why now?
There are several things to keep in mind here. First, the coal miner’s health insurance and pension fund is in a death spiral. Right now about 10,000 active miners are footing the bill for 100,000 retired and disabled miners. This partially a result of technology reducing the number of miners needed and it is partly due to the actions of the Obama administration over the past eight years which were focused on destroying the coal mining industry. I know the Ayn Rand enthusiasts out there are already chanting “let them starve,” but it probably isn’t a good idea for political, economic, and humanitarian reasons. But the situation was exactly the same during the time when Harry Reid was majority leader and nothing was done and there was no threat of shutdown. Therefore we can make the well-founded judgment that while the Democrats might want to fund the miner’s health plans as a way of a) improving the rather grim reelection chances of Manchin and Brown and b) roughing up Trump before his inauguration.
Democrats are playing up Trump’s support for coal country as they try to pressure Republicans.
They said health care for miners has bipartisan support and would easily pass if Republican leaders would allow a vote on the measure. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters the issue could unite Democrats and Trump.
“I hope our new president-elect, who talked and got to know the miners, will speak out,” Schumer said. “We don’t care about partisanship.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) called out Trump by name as she left a Thursday meeting between Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and several of the Democrats who represents states where Trump won.
“We think there has been a renewed interest in these kind of issues with president-elect Donald Trump,” said Heitkamp who recently met with him in New York. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get relief and be able to deliver a Christmas present to some of the most sympathetic working people in America.”
The Democrats are really trying to provoke a fight between Donald Trump and the GOP, particularly the Senate. The miners are entirely a secondary issue. They want to goad Trump into stepping into this spending fight by using his promises to people in coal country. The outcome will be exactly the same but if they can sow dissent and distrust between Trump and the Congress early on, it will pay huge dividends for them downstream in stopping legislation they couldn’t otherwise stop.