Senate votes to keep government open after Democrats concede on coal miners’ benefits

After a dispute over health-care benefits for retired coal miners nearly led to a partial government shutdown Friday, the Senate voted 63-36 at 11:16 p.m. to keep the government running, with less than an hour to spare.

The stopgap bill, effective through April 28, funds the government at roughly the same levels as last year, and adds money for disaster relief and some other programs.

It provides relief for states affected by Hurricane Matthew and paves the way for retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be confirmed as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense. It also extends health-care benefits for thousands of retired coal miners for another four months.

Funding to maintain health benefits for the retired miners was the key roadblock to final passage of the spending bill.

Some Democrats had pushed for a fix lasting a year or more, referencing a pact made nearly 70 years ago to guarantee lifetime protection for the miners and their families.

“Missouri’s own Harry Truman, whose Senate seat I hold today, made a promise to these coal miners when he was president. I’m fighting to keep his promise,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who participated in an angry Senate debate late Friday, as a group of miners watched from the gallery.

Without the 41 votes needed to block the government funding bill, they finally conceded late Friday, convinced they had made strong arguments that wouldn’t be forgotten.

“We’ve positioned ourselves so that we’re going to live to fight another day,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who led the effort.

It would have been nearly impossible to get anything else. The House had passed the bill overwhelmingly Thursday, then left for the year.

Among the bill’s other provisions:

▪ Mattis – a Pullman, Wash., native who left the military three years ago – has been nominated to be secretary of defense. The law bars former military personnel from serving in the job until they’ve been separated from the service for seven years. The bill waives that restriction.

▪ There’s more money for communities in North Carolina devastated by Hurricane Matthew in October. Some of the federal disaster recovery aid will go to the state’s farmers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Other funding in the bill will help repair highways damaged by flooding and provide assistance through Community Development Block Grants for areas hit hardest in the eastern part of the state.

North Carolina’s lawmakers have estimated the spending bill will pave the way for at least $300 million in federal funding for post-Hurricane Matthew relief.

▪ Missouri will get $200 million to pay for demolition and remediation of the decommissioning Bannister Federal Complex, a 300-acre complex that includes a plant where workers used to manufacture parts for nuclear weapons.

▪ The budget bill extends the benefits for some 16,000 retired coal miners through the end of April. Manchin and his allies wanted more: a yearlong extension or a longer-term fix for the United Mine Workers of America pension and health care fund. That’s off the table until Congress reconvenes next month.

The retired miners received notices in October that their benefits would run out at year’s end, a casualty of coal industry bankruptcies and mine layoffs.

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confident the retirees would not lose benefits next year, including more than 3,000 in his home state of Kentucky.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll take it away,” he said. “It’s been my intention that the miner benefits not expire at the end of April next year.”

And, he pledged, “I’m going to work with my colleagues to prevent that.”

So pass the budget, he urged.

“Failure to pass it guarantees it goes away at the end of the month,” McConnell said.

Manchin introduced a bill to make a permanent fix for the pension and health care fund in July 2015, and the Senate Finance Committee approved the Miners Protection Act in September by a vote of 18-8.

Manchin’s bill would transfer excess funds from a federal program to reclaim abandoned mines. Its supporters noted that it would not add anything to the deficit or cost taxpayers.

The measure has 25 co-sponsors, half of them Republicans. A similar bill in the House has 87 co-sponsors. Yet Republican leaders in both chambers, including McConnell, have not brought the bills to a floor vote.

Thousands of retired coal miners came to Washington on a sweltering day in September to rally for the bill. It averages $530 a month and helps keep many families out of poverty.

“There’s a lot of widows and miners in eastern Kentucky that depend on the UMWA pension for their health care,” said Joseph Hatfield of Pikeville, Ky., the president of the United Mine Workers Union’s Local 1511, at the September rally.

After the vote, Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called it “an insult to every coal miner and every family member whose loved ones descended into the depths and darkness of our nation’s coal mines.”

Casey also noted that the families whose benefits were just spared would get another notification as early as next month that they’d lose them by the end of April.

“It is so short a time that recipients would be notified almost simultaneously that they are both eligible for benefits and that their benefits will terminate,” he said.

Anna Douglas, James Rosen, William Douglas and Lindsay Wise of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis