WASHINGTON ― With less than a day to go before the government shuts down, a handful of Senate Democrats are demanding Republicans include a one-year extension of health benefits for coal miners in the year-end spending bill.
Despite a year of campaign promises to fight for the “working man” and vows by Donald Trump to keep coal miners employed, the president-elect has yet to chime in on the battle raging in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) hasn’t mentioned Trump by name, but scolded his colleagues Thursday for touting promises in election ads that they are for the middle and working class but then backing down when miners stand to lose health benefits by Dec. 31.
“‘We’re going to make sure that working men and women really get a fair shake; they’ve been screwed and left behind’ ― all of our advertising and campaigns say that,” Manchin said on the Senate floor before heading outside to join members of the United Mine Workers of America. “All I’m saying is now fulfill it. It’s either put up or shut up. You’ve asked them to vote for you because of this reason.”
Earlier Thursday, the House passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open until April 28 before adjourning for the year. It would extend unionized miners’ health care benefits for the length of the bill.
Manchin and fellow coal-state senators have pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for nearly a year to pass legislation that would prevent the medical and pension benefits of retired coal miners from going insolvent.
Now they’re willing to wait on salvaging the retirement funds as long as health benefits are extended for one year rather than just four months. Republican leaders showed no signs of caving as the Senate reconvened on Friday morning.
McConnell shot back at Democrats, pointing to the strong vote among House Democrats for the continuing resolution the day prior.
“While some Senate Democrats may want to delay into a government shutdown, House Democrats overwhelmingly rejected that approach,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
McConnell said his initial request to House Republicans was to include a one-year extension of health care benefits for the miners.
“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course I would have,” McConnell said. “But we’ll be back at it in April, and I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll take it away.”
Then McConnell piled on, blaming Democrats and President Barack Obama for coal miners being in the predicament they are in right now.
“I would have preferred that so many miners’ places of employment hadn’t been driven into bankruptcy in recent years,” McConnell said, “which, as we all know, is due in no small part to president Obama, his policies, and the overwhelming majority of Senate Democrats who support all those policies that have been a huge factor in creating the dilemma that we have in coal country.”
The steep decline of coal production, however, is due to a mix of factors, not just regulations. The cheap price of natural gas has contributed significantly to the coal industry’s struggles.
McConnell himself admitted as much in November, when he said the proposals Republicans plan to present to Trump to help coal companies may not save the industry.
“We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”
Even Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, pinned the blame more on market forces than regulations when testifying before a House committee earlier this year.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wondered aloud why the president-elect hadn’t inserted himself into the debate as a government shutdown loomed.
Brown stressed that there’s unanimity in the Democratic caucus to fight throughout Friday for the health benefits and for a “Buy America” provision that would require American iron and steel products be used in infrastructure projects. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) successfully stripped the “Buy America” provision from a water resources bill that the House passed Thursday and the Senate is expected to vote on before leaving for the year.
“I’ve tweeted the president-elect on both of these issues ― on Buy America and the mine workers ― and he has not said anything,” Brown told reporters Thursday. “All we’re asking is for him to call Paul Ryan on Buy America and call Mitch McConnell on this and live up to what he said in his campaign.”
Manchin and Brown were joined by four of their colleagues for the Thursday evening press conference outside the Capitol, including incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer told reporters he would vote against the continuing resolution if it doesn’t include at least one of the measures Democrats are asking for.
”We’re going to win this fight,” Schumer said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) became visibly upset when pointing to the West Virginia flag being held up by the retired miners who joined the senators as they addressed reporters. The flag depicts a farmer and a miner, Heitkamp noted, evidence that being a coal miner is part of the culture and history of the state.
“If we’re going to be a country that rewards hard work, then we better live up to our commitments,” Heitkamp said, taking a shot at House Republicans who closed up shop to head over to a White House Christmas party Thursday night. “Now there are a lot of people over in the House of Representatives ― you know where a lot of them probably are? They’re over at the White House right now, all dressed up for the event that’s at the White House. You know what? We’re standing here in solidarity with American workers.”
Roughly 17,000 miners are set to lose their health care benefits later this month, and an additional 4,000 would lose them early next year without congressional action. Many are also facing cuts to their pensions due to a steep decline in the coal industry. Manchin says he will “fight another day” for the retirement benefits but insisted Congress shouldn’t leave until miners are given more certainty surrounding their health care.
“Nobody wants to close this institution down, but you got to stand for something or surely to God you’ll stand for nothing,” he said.
Manchin, who’s been floated as a possible Cabinet pick, is scheduled to meet with Trump in New York on Friday. It’s unclear if he will have to reschedule the meeting to stay in Washington for votes through the weekend.
“Everybody just had to get out of town today,” Manchin said. “We’re willing to stay here and work. ... We’re staying here tomorrow to get ’er done.”
On Thursday, Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, chided Republicans for being cynical, but wouldn’t threaten a veto of the bill if it didn’t extend the health benefits for more than four months.
“These are lives and livelihoods that hang in the balance and there should be bipartisan common ground to address the needs of these 20,000 coal miners who are slated to lose their health insurance at the end of the month,” Earnest said. “So Democrats are ready to solve this problem and it’s not lost on me, the irony, that Republicans are bragging about the kind of support they have from workers in coal country, particularly retirees in coal country and now are prepared to just extend their health care for five months.”