Congress averts shutdown, gives miners temporary benefit fix

By Staff, wire report
AP photo
In this photo taken April 27, 2017, people walk outside of the U.S. Capitol, on a warm and humid day, as Congress continues work on keeping the federal government open.

WASHINGTON — With just hours to spare, Congress easily approved a short-term spending bill Friday that prevents a partial federal government shutdown over the weekend and funds another week of health care benefits for more than 22,000 retired coal miners.

But on President Donald Trump’s 99th day in office, lawmakers were leaving until next week without completing two other measures he wanted: a Republican health care overhaul and a budget that would finance the government for the entire year.

The Senate sent the temporary spending measure to Trump by voice vote after the House approved it by a lopsided 382-30 vote. The bill keeps the government functioning through next Friday, which leaders hope will give bipartisan bargainers enough time to finish a $1 trillion package financing government through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the short-term spending bill continues language from last December to temporarily provide funding for more than 22,000 United Mine Workers retirees and family members whose health care benefits are at risk following a series of coal industry bankruptcies amid the industry’s recent downturn.

Manchin also said he has “received assurances” that a long-term fix for those miners will be part of the final spending package and that those promises were the only reason he supported the bill to avert a government shutdown this weekend. The senator said he and other UMW supporters would continue their efforts to also seek a permanent financial solution for the UMW pension plan, which provides benefits to more than 89,000 retirees and is being counted on by 29,000 active miners who have vested in the program but aren’t yet receiving payments.

“I am very confident that, next week, we will finally pass a permanent health care fix for our retired miners who have been coming to Capitol Hill, talking with their representatives, making phone calls and writing letters for years to get this done,” Manchin said. “It’s because of their hard work that we are so close to securing a permanent health care fix, and I thank them for dedicating their time and energy. These patriotic miners have waited far too long already, so I urge all of my colleagues to get this done; then, we will redouble our efforts to find a permanent fix for their pensions.”

This week, prospects for the UMW’s health care benefit and pension legislation have faced challenges, as some factions within the coal industry have tried to use the crisis as a vehicle for their own legislation to avoid obligations under a 1992 law to fund benefits for their retirees.

Meanwhile, in a disappointment for the White House, Trump was destined to serve his 100th day in office — today — without being able to claim victories on health care and a yearlong budget.

The White House had pressured GOP leaders to push legislation replacing President Barack Obama’s health care law through the House of Representatives this week, in time for Trump to claim bragging rights by the symbolic 100th day. But late Thursday, House leaders abandoned that effort after falling short of the votes they would need for passage.

“As soon as we have the votes, we’ll vote on it,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters.

The struggle over both bills was embarrassing for the GOP, which has Trump in the White House and majorities in Congress. Republicans would have preferred to not be laboring to keep agencies functioning. They also wanted to approve a health care overhaul, the gold standard of GOP campaign promises for the past seven years.

On the spending bill, minority Democrats had threatened to withhold support for the temporary measure unless there was a bipartisan deal on the long-term $1 trillion bill. But they voted for it anyway, citing expectations that disagreements would be resolved.

Most core decisions about agency budgets have been worked out, but unrelated policy issues — such as a Democratic request to help the cash-strapped government of Puerto Rico with its Medicaid burden — are among the holdups.

Republicans still pressed for policy wins, with so-called riders related to abortion, environmental regulations and curbing new financial rules. But Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass the measure, pushed back.

The bipartisan budget talks had progressed smoothly after the White House dropped a threat to withhold payments that help lower-income Americans pay their medical bills and Trump abandoned a demand for money to complete the wall on the border with Mexico.

On the health care bill, House Republican leaders are still scrounging for votes from their own rank-and-file to rescue it.

At least 18 Republicans, mostly moderates, said they oppose the health care legislation, and many others remain publicly uncommitted. That puts party elders in an uncomfortable spot because, if 22 Republicans defect, the bill will fail, assuming all Democrats oppose it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wants to avoid an encore of last month’s embarrassment, when he abruptly canceled a vote on a health care overhaul because of opposition from moderates and conservatives alike.

Republicans have recast it to let states escape a requirement of Obama’s 2010 law that insurers charge healthy and seriously ill customers the same rates. They also could be exempted from Obama’s mandate that insurers cover a list of services like hospitalization and substance abuse treatment and from its prohibition against charging older customers more than triple their rates for younger ones.

The overall legislation would cut the Medicaid program for the poor, eliminate Obama’s fines for people who don’t buy insurance and provide generally skimpier subsidies.

Centrist Republicans were the primary target of lobbying by the White House and GOP leaders seeking the 216 votes they would need to clinch passage of the health measure.

On Wednesday, conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus announced their support for the revised health legislation. That reversed the conservatives’ opposition to the earlier edition of the legislation.

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