Could Democrats drive a government shutdown over miners’ health care?

The government could face a shutdown this week as Senate Democrats and Republicans attempt to find common ground on a health care provision for miners in next year's spending bill.

Cliff Owen/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. talks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. A day ahead of a government shutdown deadline, Congress scrambled to wrap-up unfinished business, voting decisively to send President Barack Obama a defense policy bill but facing obstacles on a stopgap spending measure.

The United States Senate will meet in a rare Friday session in order to avoid a government shutdown over spending conflicts, this time led by Democrats primarily fighting for miners’ benefits, among other issues, in the spending bill.

Federal funding is due to run out on Friday. But Senate Democrats may refuse to approve a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running through April, after the House approved it Thursday, as they insist that the bill extend health benefits for thousands of workers. Health benefits for more than 12,000 former union miners are due to expire on Jan. 1, and an additional 10,000 may lose them later, The Washington Post reports. 

If the funding dispute is not resolved by Friday’s spending bill deadline, Senate could send the government into a shutdown, albeit a brief one. Whereas unanimous consent is required for the Senate to take up the bill on Friday, it would not be needed to pass on Sunday. 

"I just want to say to everybody here, we are going to win this fight. I can't predict the exact path, but we are going to win this fight because we're right," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, the next Senate minority leader, as Politico reports. "We want to get these beautiful people their due, and we won't stop 'til we do."

Republicans say the deal was the best they could get, heightening the possibility the government could close at midnight Friday, reports the Associated Press.

"They're not going to get what they want. They ought to actually be grateful for what they got," said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the Senate majority whip.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are spearheading the effort to extend health benefits for one year. The current bill, which passed in the House of Representatives by a 326 to 96 vote, gives miners health benefits for only four months.

"We can do the right thing between today and tomorrow," Senator Manchin said on the Senate floor on Thursday, The New York Times reports. In his state, which is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi, 68 percent of voters opted for President-elect Donald Trump, who frequently promised to revive the industry. 

The last government shutdown occurred in 2013 over Republicans' opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, as they attempted to tie federal spending to resolutions to delay or defund the program. That shutdown resulted in thousands of “non-essential” government employees being placed on furlough, and the temporary closure of the national parks.

Although it lasted little more than two weeks, this shutdown was incredibly unpopular among Americans, and the Republican leaders whom much of the country considered the culprits saw their popularity take a sharp hit. House Speaker John Boehner saw his approval rating drop to just 17 percent, for example, while the approval rating for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas hit 14 percent; the Republican Party as a whole dropped to 24 percent.

Critics of Mr. Trump and the Republican Party say that it is ironic that the party whose campaign messages emphasized US industry and working-class needs, particularly in coal country, has opposed the extension.

"I hope our new president-elect, who talked and got to know the miners, will speak out," Senator Schumer said, according to The Washington Post. "We don’t care about partisanship."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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