Dem blockade threatens brief government shutdown

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    “We’re going to stick with it. We’re with the mine workers for wanting a year of [insurance],” Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) told reporters. “Democrats are united.” | AP Photo

    Coal country Senate Democrats are pledging to fight the GOP’s spending bill tooth and nail, refusing to rule out a brief government shutdown if their demands aren’t met for a longer extension of expiring benefits for coal miners.

    Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) have ground the Senate to a halt until they get a better deal from Republican leaders, who say they will not renegotiate a four-month extension of coal miner health benefits. The House is heading out of town after passing the spending bill, leaving Democrats with only procedural tactics to stop the measure.

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    Senate Democrats held a lengthy special caucus on Thursday to try to come to a resolution on the year-end deal to fund the government through April. But they emerged with no answers, and the normally chatty Manchin refused to take questions.

    “We’re going to stick with it. We’re with the mine workers for wanting a year of [insurance],” Brown told reporters. “Democrats are united.”

    Asked if he cares if the government shuts down, he said: “I told you what I’m telling you.”

    But the GOP says they’re 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.”

    Republican aides argued that it was only though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) advocacy for miners that the four-month health care extension is even in the bill. Health care coverage for more than 8,000 West Virginia miners is on the line. A Democratic aide said that even with the four-month extension miners will get cancellation notices in January.

    But Democrats said it wasn’t enough and that the GOP was turning its back on the working class voters that just elected Donald 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.”

    Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declined to discuss what the endgame is, but acknowledged Democrats have “problems” with the miner language.

    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. Shelly 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 just hours before the Friday shutdown deadline, and according to news reports, he may be interviewing for a job in the Trump administration.

    House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers assured reporters a government shutdown would not happen. Asked if 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 given that the spending bill and water bill are the last two major pieces of legislation in Congress this year.

    “We’re really focused on two things, and that is Sen. Manchin’s efforts to protect these coal miners when it comes to their medical benefits, as well as the Buy America provisions. We think both of these things are very important,” 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 Friday at midnight. 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 story.