WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday cleared bills to keep the government running through April and authorize hundreds of water projects, but a Senate fight over benefits for retired coal miners threatened to lead to a government shutdown this weekend.
House members promptly bolted home for the holidays and will return next month to a capital city in which Republicans will fully control all levers of power, with Donald Trump inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president.
The stopgap spending bill passed on a 326-96 vote; the massive water projects measure passed 360-61.
In the Senate, however, Democrats made a last-ditch effort to add two provisions to the bills: Aa one-year respite for retired coal miners scheduled to lose their health benefits at year’s end and a permanent extension of “Buy America” mandates for steel used in the construction of water projects.
“They totally gave the back of their hand to miners,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “Who’s for the working people? Where’s Donald Trump on miners?”
Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both of whom face re-election in 2018, argued that a provision in the spending bill to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16,500 retired union coal miners is insufficient.
The measure does not protect pension benefits despite President Harry S. Truman’s 1946 guarantee to miners of lifetime health and retirement benefits.
“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,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
GOP leaders insisted the deal was the best the Democrats could get, heightening the possibility the government could close at midnight Friday. Before the election, vulnerable GOP incumbents Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania had supported a broader bill to protect health care and pension benefits for about 120,000 retired coal miners.
After winning re-election, neither Portman nor Toomey was part of the Democratic fight for the miners.
“They’re not going to get what they want. They ought to actually be grateful for what they got,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican.
“They gave us a bill and said `take it or leave it,“’ Manchin said.
Democrats’ options were limited, especially since the House has closed up shop and won’t consider changes to either bill.
“We can’t predict the exact path, but we’re going to win this fight because we’re right,” vowed Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader.
And delaying the separate water projects measure would kill $170 million long sought by Democrats to help the impoverished city of Flint, Michigan, repair its aging infrastructure to rid its water of poisonous lead.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., nonetheless promised to filibuster the massive water projects bill over a provision allowing more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
Boxer and environmentalists complain that the provision favors corporate farmers over fishermen and endangered species. It appeared to be an uphill struggle, in part because her California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, favors the changes for the distribution of the state’s water resources.
The Senate did, however, clear the annual defense policy bill, which authorizes $611 billion to run the military in 2017, provides a 2.1 percent pay hike for the military and again blocks President Barack Obama from delivering on his longstanding campaign pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The vote was 92-7.
In a win for Trump, the spending bill would speed up the confirmation process for retired Gen. James Mattis, his choice for defense secretary.
Congress needs to pass legislation to grant Mattis an exception from a law that requires a seven-year wait for former members of the military to serve in the civilian post. The provision would speed up action on the waiver, though Democrats could still filibuster it.
The bill would buy several months for the new Congress and incoming Trump administration to wrap up more than $1 trillion worth of unfinished agency budget bills.
The two-year congressional session was often bitter and tumultuous.
A conservative rebellion booted Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, from office last year. Democrats staged an overnight sit-in on the House floor protesting the GOP-led Congress’ inaction on gun control. Senate Republicans refused to let Obama fill a Supreme Court vacancy after Justice Antonin Scalia died last February.
Tributes on Thursday to retiring senators offered a brief respite from rancor. The Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, delivered a long farewell speech.
“What is the future of the Senate? I would hope that everyone would do everything they can to protect the Senate as an institution. As part of our Constitution, it should be given the dignity it deserves. I love the Senate,” Reid said.
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