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McConnell to coal-state Dems: Accept 4-month deal for miners

Written by The Associated Press | Dec 9, 2016 12:08 PM
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Photo by Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

(Washington) -- Coal-state Democrats who are threatening a government shutdown over health benefits for retired miners should "take yes for answer" and stop stalling a short-term spending bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.

McConnell said he understands Democrats' frustration, but he said the stopgap spending bill ensures that retired miners -- including thousands in his home state of Kentucky -- will keep their health care through April 28.

"Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course I would have," the Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor.

McConnell said he asked Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other House leaders to fund health-care benefits for a year, as Democrats are seeking, but his request was denied. Republicans are wary of bailing out unionized workers and dismissive of the 70-year-old guarantee President Harry S. Truman made of lifetime benefits for miners.

The spending bill to keep the federal government operating beyond Friday's midnight deadline is stuck in the Senate as Democrats facing re-election in 2018, including West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, fight for a one-year extension for the miners' health benefits rather than the temporary fix.

McConnell said the temporary extension is the best lawmakers are going to get, especially since the House has already passed the spending bill and gone home for a three-week holiday.

"This is a good time to take yes for answer," McConnell said.

Coal-state Democrats have pressed President-elect Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed coal champion, to intervene with Republicans.

Trump won West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states in Appalachia and the Midwest with heavy support from working-class voters in coal and steel communities. Democrats are waging a high-stakes fight a month after an abysmal showing with those voters that secured a GOP monopoly in Washington next year with a congressional majority.

Manchin called the GOP proposal to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16,500 retired union coal miners "horrendous" and "inhumane" and accused Republicans of turning their backs on people who built the country and made it great.

While Democrats do not want to shut down the government, they're willing to do so to protect the miners, Manchin said. "You've got to stand for something or surely to God you'll stand for nothing," he said.

Democrats called on Trump to uphold a campaign promise to help coal miners by persuading Republican leaders to adopt a broader bill that would protect health care and pension benefits for the next decade. The Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee approved the $3 billion bill in September, but the measure has stalled in the full Senate.

"Who's for the working people? Where's Donald Trump on miners?" asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, who also faces re-election in 2018.

Missing in action on the latest Democratic fight were two Republicans -- Ohio's Rob Portman and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania -- who had backed the broader bill when faced with tough re-election fights. Without mentioning their names, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey referred to their absence now that the two had comfortably returned to the Senate.

"Members who were running for re-election got to go home and say ... 'we'll take care of it when we come back after the elections.' Well, here we are," he said Thursday on the Senate floor.

Portman had privately pressed Ryan and McConnell, to no avail. Aides to Toomey did not return repeated calls for comment.

Other Republicans say the bill could pressure Congress to offer similar help to other cash-strapped pension funds.

The dispute over the miners' benefits was not the only one holding up action in the Senate as lawmakers sought to complete their work for the year.

The House on Thursday cleared the government-funding bill and another bill authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and one to allow more of California's limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state's lengthy drought.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., vowed to filibuster the massive water projects bill, saying it 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.

Democrats' options are limited, especially since House members are gone and won't consider changes to either bill.

"If we can't stand for working men and women in this country, we deserve what the American people think of us. We deserve the (low) ratings we get," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., at a news conference with miners.

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