Democratic Senators Stall CR, Force Federal Government into Weekend Shutdown

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Senate Democrats from coal mining states shamed their Democratic colleagues in joining them in a procedural vote Thursday that would have ended debate on the continuing resolution to extend federal government funding through April over an extension of benefits for out-of-work coal workers.

In the Senate, there are two votes. The first vote ends debate, and that must pass with 60 votes. The effort to extend debate is called the filibuster, which is what Senate Democrats, led by Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, did when they kept the Republicans from getting the 60 votes to end debate. The second vote on a bill merely requires a simple majority.

At the heart of the issue are pensions, such as the ones administered by Central States Pension Fund, which took over for failed coal mining companies that did not secure the solvency of the pensions. The federal government had met the shortfall in the pensions in the last continuing resolution, but that funding expires with the CR Friday.

The federal agency that meets pension shortfalls, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, is unable to continue to meet the gap in the coal pension obligations. The problem goes back even further to legislation signed by President Harry S. Truman that created a federal obligation to guarantee health and pension benefits of coal miners.

In a letter to colleagues in May, Brown wrote:

We understand that there are no easy answers, but we owe it to the hardworking Americans, who played by the rules and worked a lifetime for a secure pension, to do our best and not to wait for another day. We already have a bipartisan solution to help the coal miners who sacrificed so much to keep the country’s lights on. We cannot sit idly by and watch the miners lose health benefits in a matter of months.

Joining Brown on the Senate floor to block debate were Sen. Joseph Manchin (D.-W.V.), Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D.-Va.).

Further complicating the budget scenario, the House has already finished its business for the year and left for an extended Christmas recess. If the Senate bill differs in any way from the House bill, the House must approve the Senate bill, or the two chambers could fashion a new bill entirely.

The Senate is expected to reconvene Saturday.

United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement December 6: “The inclusion of a mere four months of spending on health care benefits for retired miners and widows is a slap in the face to all 22,000 of them who desperately need their health care next month, next year and for the rest of their lives.”

Roberts said:

Further, the complete exclusion of any language to provide help for the pensions of 120,000 current and future retirees puts America’s coalfield communities on a glide path to deeper economic disaster. The notion that Congress needs more time to consider this matter is absurd.

Regardless of how it plays out, Brown is committed. Before stalling up the continuing resolution, he threatened to filibuster a bill recognizing veterans of Pearl Harbor.

Adding to Brown’s motivation could be the news Wednesday that Ohio’s Treasurer Josh Mandel, who ran against Brown in 2012, is running against him again.


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