- The Washington Times - Friday, December 9, 2016

The Senate overcame a late revolt by coal-state Democrats and passed a stopgap spending bill Friday that keeps federal agencies running into April, averting a partial government shutdown with less than an hour to spare.

It then wrapped up a contentious water projects bill and other last-minute business in the wee hours, so senators could leave town for the holidays and prepare for a change in power next year.

Enough Democrats linked arms with Republicans to pass the spending bill, 63-36, after Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and fellow Democrats effectively conceded defeat in their late push for a year-long extension coal workers’ health benefits, rather than a four-month renewal.

“We never intended to shut down the government,” incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said.

He said his party pushed the issue to the brink of a midnight deadline to highlight the seriousness of the matter.

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

“This is a good time to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch 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 leading up to the vote, 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.

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, said 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.”

She spoke out against the drought provisions one last time around midnight before the Senate voted to proceed with the water package and then pass it, 78-21.

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 Mr. 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,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, said 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 prep for a new fight 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 approach to environmental policy was devastating the sector.

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