Pearl Harbor, Oakland fire tributes are stuck in the Senate, and spending bill could be next

Retired coal miners rallied at the Capitol in September to support a rescue for their pension and health care fund. Some Senate Democrats have vowed to hold up business until lawmakers approve a permanent fix.
Retired coal miners rallied at the Capitol in September to support a rescue for their pension and health care fund. Some Senate Democrats have vowed to hold up business until lawmakers approve a permanent fix. McClatchy

Wednesday, it was symbolic resolutions on the Pearl Harbor anniversary and last week’s deadly Oakland warehouse fire. Thursday, it could be funding to keep the federal government open beyond Friday.

So far, a few Senate Democrats have made good on their promise to block Senate business until Congress approves a permanent fix to a pension plan that more than 100,000 retired coal miners and their families depend on for health care.

A bill to maintain government spending levels through the end of April is poised to pass the House of Representatives Thursday, and it includes a temporary infusion of funds to protect health care for the retired miners beyond Dec. 31, though not their pensions.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Democrats who represent coal-producing states, want to force lawmakers to approve a measure that would solve both problems by holding up other legislation.

Other Democrats, while sympathetic to the plight of the miners and their families, weren’t as willing to block a must-pass spending bill.

“There’s no reason to shut down the government,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who’s retiring after 34 years in Congress.

Late Wednesday, Manchin and Brown held up two symbolic resolutions, one commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and another expressing sympathy for the victims of last week’s warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, urged the Senate to honor “the individuals who lost their lives in the tragic fire in Oakland, Calif.”

“We all have a lot of appreciation for the situation,” Manchin said.

But, he said, “We have come to an impasse that if we cannot get the House, with the help of our Senate colleagues on both sides, to agree to a permanent, long-term fix and a solution for the miners’ health care ... we stand here today objecting to things that we would all like to move forward on.”

Then Tillis brought up the Pearl Harbor resolutions. This time, Brown got up, saying the resolutions “don’t mean anything except they are nice.”

And while he said he’d like to support them, “Compared to taking care of widows who are going to see their health care expire on Dec. 31, I don’t understand the equivalency.”

The House voted 326-96 Thursday to keep most of the government running through April 28. But Democrats cite several problems with the measure that could slow its progress in the Senate.

They’re wary of a provision that provides a waiver so retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis can become defense secretary, and worry that money earmarked for those affected by contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., is not sufficient.

The biggest trouble, though, comes from the coal miners provision. In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California offered her support.

The stopgap spending bill, or continuing resolution, she said, “does nothing to solve the critical pension problem that threatens the future of these miners and their families.”

Legislation that would transfer excess funds from a federal program to reclaim abandoned mines to the pension plan has strong bipartisan support in both chambers.

“The funds are there,” Pelosi said. “They just need to be transferred.”

Pelosi voted against the continuing resolution. In the Senate, West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she would oppose it over the miners pension rescue.

However, one of the leading sponsors of the miners pension legislation in the House, Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, said Wednesday that the next Congress and president would have to solve the issue. Davis voted for the continuing resolution.

“While I am disappointed that we are not voting on a permanent solution that ensures both health care and pension promises to miners are kept,” Davis said, “having this provision in the continuing resolution ensures miners will not lose their health care benefits at the end of the month.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid