WASHINGTON: US Senate Democrats late Friday (Saturday in Manila) dropped objections to a federal spending bill, ensuring the government does not slip into a shutdown over a fight about health benefits for coal miners.
After taking the debate right to the brink just hours before a midnight deadline to fund federal operations, Democrats eased their hard line and prevented a brief weekend funding lapse that could have embarrassed lawmakers the month before Donald Trump assumes the presidency.
“We’re not going to shut down the government. We’re going to keep it open,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, who will lead the chamber’s Democrats beginning next month.
The bill, known as a continuing resolution, funds overseas operations including the fight against the Islamic State group, provides a pay raise for US military personnel, and includes money for Flint, Michigan to address its water contamination crisis.
It also provides a waiver to allow retired Marine general James Mattis, who stepped down in 2013, to be confirmed as Trump’s new secretary of defense. Current law bans uniformed military officers from serving in the position for seven years after leaving active duty.
A handful of Democrats had strenuously fought for an extension of health benefits for retired miners. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia had sought a one-year extension, but the Republican-led House of Representatives approved just a four-month fix.
On Thursday, the House passed their version of the continuing resolution by a vote of 326-96, then promptly left Washington for the remainder of the year. The bill funds government operations through April 28.
Manchin, whose state is in a major coalmining region, had called the temporary proposal for some 16,000 retired coal miners “inhumane” and vowed to delay a vote.
But Manchin, who meets with Trump Monday in New York, changed his tune after huddling with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pledged to work hard early next year to get the benefits extended.
“Majority Leader McConnell and I talked about a defined path forward for the 22,800 retired coal miners and widows who are on the verge of losing the healthcare benefits they were promised,” Manchin said after the Senate’s vote late Friday.
“I continue to think the four month fix included in today’s Continuing Resolution is not a meaningful solution to this dire problem. That is why I opposed cloture and urged my colleagues to do the same,” Manchin added.
In their support for the blockade, Democrats appeared keen to connect with working-class voters who abandoned the party in droves in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and voted for Trump.
Many observers had accused Democrats of failing to lay out a viable economic plan for the working class, focusing instead on social issues and blasting Trump as temperamentally unfit to lead.