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Congress scrambles to avert government shutdown

With a government shutdown looming, the Senate scrambled Friday to pass a stopgap spending bill that funds federal agencies through April, as coal-state Democrats who’d held out for a better deal for retired miners pledged to pick up the fight in the new year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell queued up evening votes to beat a midnight deadline on spending and then sew up a water-projects bill in the wee hours. Lawmakers were eager to finish the year’s work and enjoy the holidays before a major power change next year.

With only hours to spare, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio effectively conceded defeat in their late push for a year-long extension coal workers’ health benefits, rather than a four-month renewal.

The House is already gone for the year, so Senate GOP leaders told Democrats to either accept the measure as-is or take on blame for a partial government shutdown come Saturday.

“This is a good time to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican whose own state relies on the coal industry.

Democrats facing reelection in 2018 also wanted to insert a “Buy America” provision in the water projects bill, so that infrastructure projects would be required to use U.S.-made steel and iron. In remarks this week, they said Republicans were undermining pledges that President-elect Donald Trump made to blue-collar workers.

Yet their protests slowly began to peter out Friday, as the threat of a shutdown became real and their colleagues inched toward the door.

Mr. Manchin, who’d rallied with affected miners the prior evening, suddenly canceled a second press conference at midday, while Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, suggested the odds were stacked against her bid to block the water projects bill over California drought language she viewed as an assault on environmental protections. That bill easily passed the House, 360-61.

“I think the House vote was an indication that the bill is so popular. I wrote the darn thing — it’s too good,” she said outside the Senate chamber. “If I lose this, it’ll be sad, but I also know the underlying bill has 26 fantastic projects for my state.”

The spending bill, known in Capitol-speak as a “continuing resolution,” keeps most government agencies operating at 2016 levels, but boosts defense spending by some $ 8 billion on an annualized basis, hoping to keep up with the extensive U.S. military commitments overseas.

It also provides $ 4.1 billion in new disaster relief and reconstruction money to take care of damage from hurricanes, floods and severe drought, plus $ 170 million to address drinking water problems, including the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan.

It passed the House on Thursday, 326-96.

Congress passed only one of the dozen annual spending bills it is supposed to approve each year, leaving most agencies running on stopgap funding since Oct. 1, which was the start of the fiscal year.

The latest bill would keep government open until April 28, buying enough time for President-elect Donald Trump to get his team up and running before Congress resumes its budget fights.

It includes $ 7 million to reimburse law enforcement agencies protecting Mr. Trump in Manhattan — only a fifth of New York officials say it cost — and a controversial provision that would clear the way for retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis to be Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, despite only leaving the military in 2013. The law requires at least seven years to have elapsed before a retired member of the military can take over at the Pentagon.

Republicans want to quickly approve a waiver of the law next year, but could face an extensive delay with Senate filibusters. The new bill changes the usual debate rules, preserving the 60-vote threshold but limiting the amount of time a Democratic filibuster could last.

But it was a standoff over miners’ benefits that emerged as the main sticking point, crystalizing into a shutdown threat by Thursday.

“If we don’t do this, we have no business going home,” Mr. Brown said Thursday of a year-long extension in benefits.

Mr. McConnell said the miners’ insurance would have expired at the end of the month, rather than in April, if Congress hadn’t passed the spending resolution, so coal-state lawmakers should gear up to fight again this spring.

“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course course I would have,” said Mr. McConnell.

He also needled Democrats for taking a stand for coal workers, saying the party’s own approach to environmental policy was devastating the sector.


Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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