Senate pushes to avert gov’t shutdown over miners’ benefits

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks on Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, during the signing ceremony for the 21st Century Cures Act. From left are, McConnell, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., and Max Schill, 7, who suffers from Noonan Syndrome. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate pushed to avert a government shutdown at midnight Friday as coal-state Democrats evoked President-elect Donald Trump in pleading for a more generous extension of health care benefits for retired miners.

A key Democrat in the rancorous fight over benefits for retired miners facing a loss of coverage at year’s end suggested he would beat a tactical retreat and resume the battle next year. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., had hoped to provide a one-year extension for the miners rather than the shorter, four-month fix in the stopgap spending bill.

“We will carry the momentum and win the fight in January. Keep fighting,” Manchin told reporters in a conference call. “If we aren’t successful today, we will be successful in January.”

Absent a deal, there would be a post-midnight vote to advance the spending bill over a filibuster barrier, with passage of the measure at some point this weekend.

Though a lapse in government funding was possible, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said a shutdown wouldn’t begin immediately in any event, especially if the White House budget office was sure that the temporary funding measure would pass later Saturday.

The underlying funding bill would keep the government running through April 28 to buy time for the incoming Trump administration and Congress to wrap up more than $1 trillion in unfinished agency budget work. It also provides war funding, disaster aid for Louisiana and other states, and an expedited process for considering Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis.

Coal-state Democrats have pressed Trump, a self-proclaimed coal champion, to intervene with Republicans. Manchin, mentioned as possible candidate for energy secretary or secretary of state in the new administration, will meet with Trump Monday and said he expects to raise the coal miners’ issue.

Trump won West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states in Appalachia and the Midwest with heavy support from working-class voters in coal and steel communities. Democrats are waging a high-stakes fight a month after an abysmal showing with those voters, who helped the GOP secure a monopoly in Washington next year.

“Who’s for the working people? Where’s Donald Trump on miners?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who faces re-election in 2018.

Seventy years ago, President Harry S. Truman guaranteed a lifetime of health and pension benefits for retired miners to avert a strike.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the four-month extension was better than nothing. McConnell himself represents thousands of miners in the struggling coal industry and said he tried to get a longer solution in talks with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course I would have,” the Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Manchin called the GOP proposal to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16,500 retired union coal miners “horrendous” and “inhumane” and accused Republicans of turning their backs on people who built the country and made it great.

The House closed up Thursday for a three-week vacation, creating a dynamic in which the Senate had little choice but to adopt the stopgap measure. Both the funding measure and a water projects bill passed by sweeping bipartisan votes.

“Working all night and into the weekend won’t change the inevitable outcome,” said No. 2 Republican John Cornyn of Texas.

But Democratic opponents of the popular water projects bill, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., showed no signs of giving up, blasting provisions to divert more water to corporate farmers. A vote to overcome a filibuster of that measure, which would also clear the way for long-delayed funding of $170 million to help Flint, Michigan, to fix its lead-tainted water system, was to follow action on the stopgap spending bill.

Democrats griped that GOP negotiators on the water bill dumped a permanent “Buy America” provision requiring U.S.-produced steel be used in water projects. But that effort lost steam Friday; the projects covered by the measure would be part of the requirement anyway.

The spending bill also would provide $7 million to reimburse the New York Police Department for the cost of security around Trump Tower in Manhattan, far less than the $35 million the city requested.