Senate Democrats Threaten a Government Shutdown, then Concede While Getting Nothing. What Message Does That Send?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how easily Democrats conceded earlier this year in their fights for Flint funding and how this bodes poorly for the next few years. In another piece, I looked back to the recent history of Republicans putting toxic riders into “must-pass” bills and securing Democratic support for those bills.

On Friday night, we saw examples of both.

Earlier in the week, Senate Democrats, led by coal state senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), threatened to hold up the government spending bill unless Republicans agreed to include the Miners Protection Act, which would move money from the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Fund into a fund to pay for the pension and health care benefits of 120,000 coal miners and retirees.

In 1946, the United Mine Workers of America and the federal government agreed that miners who work at least 20 years would receive lifetime health care and pension benefits. The private, multi-employer plan is paid into by the major coal companies. However, as more and more mines have closed, that fund has been steadily depleted. And when coal companies like Patriot Coal go bankrupt, they have sought to avoid these obligations.

The Miners Protection Act was approved in committee back in September, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a big opponent of the coal miners union — and a big ally of the coal executives.

The MPA, as a result, did not get into the omnibus spending bill, which only extended miners’ health benefits until April 2017 and offered no pension guarantee.

However, as the clock neared midnight on Friday, Senate Democrats decided to relent and provided the votes necessary for the omnibus to pass.

At 10:00 pm, the Senate voted for cloture 61–38, and an hour later, passed the bill 63–36.

The Senate Democratic caucus split evenly on passage: 23 voted for the bill, and 23 voted against.

The 23 NO votes were a mix of coal state Dems and pro-labor/progressive Democrats in other states:

Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Tom Carper (D-DE)

Bob Casey (D-PA)

Chris Coons (D-DE)

Dick Durbin (D-IL)

Al Franken (D-MN)

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)

Mazie Hirono (D-HI)

Pat Leahy (D-VT)

Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Claire McCaskill (D-MO)

Bob Menendez (D-NJ)

Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

Harry Reid (D-NV)

Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Brian Schatz (D-HI)

Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

Mark Warner (D-VA)

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Ron Wyden (D-OR)

28 Democrats had voted against cloture (i.e., voted to keep debate open and keep pushing demands), 5 more than voted against passage.

6 Democrats had voted AGAINST cloture but FOR passage: Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Pat Leahy (D-VT) voted FOR cloture but AGAINST passage.

The only press releases about the vote that I could find were from Sherrod Brown and Mazie Hirono.

Here’s Brown:

“Washington has bailed out banks and billionaires, but now that coal miners and widows need healthcare, Congress is taking a vacation,” Brown said. “These hard-working Americans gave their lungs and their backs to power this country. They paid for their healthcare and they were promised it would be there for them. Our refusal to keep that promise is shameful — it’s everything that’s wrong with Washington and it’s why I cannot support this bill.”

And here’s Hirono:

“The working people in our country need to know who’s on their side. Workers in this country are getting screwed every single second, minute, and hour of the day. I’m taking a stand on this bill to stand with them.
“This fight is not just about coal miners. It’s about all working people. Today, it’s the coal miners. Tomorrow, it will be federal workers and other labor unions.
“I opposed this bill to send a message to Congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump. I will resist every attempt they make to weaken unions or to deny working people the benefits they’ve earned.”

In the New York Times article about Friday’s vote, Chuck Schumer said that Democrats “never intended to shut down the government,” following, “I think we’ve made our point.”

But what point is that?

Democrats showed that they are willing to concede without having their demands met. Republicans can now see that, when it comes to must-pass bills, Democratic opposition will be just talk.

According to The Hill, many Democrats in Congress view threatening a shutdown as a “distasteful” tactic. However, the real problem with the GOP’s shutdown threats in recent years was never the means they were using to advance their goals, but the ends they were seeking to achieve. Under the Republican trifecta headed by Trump we will soon face, Democrats need to be willing to embrace the range of tactics at their disposal.

Later that night (technically Saturday morning), the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act. The cloture motion sailed through 69 to 30, and the final vote was 78–21. This bill finally authorized Flint funding — something that should never have taken this long (as I argued in a piece linked earlier).

However, the water bill also included a “midnight rider” from California senator Dianne Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) to help agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley. The rider would make it easier to override the Endangered Species Act and would allow the Trump administration to move ahead with dam construction throughout the West without authorization.

Barbara Boxer (D-CA) tore into the bill in a speech Friday morning, describing the rider a case “where people have the power and the money and the ear of a senator” can get special deals but avoiding calling out her colleague by name. Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, had played a lead role in crafting the bill and was furious about this late addition and the fact that she would have to end her Senate career by voting against her own bill. Later on Friday, Jeff Merkley (D-OR) described the rider as a “a full-fledged bulldozer” running over the Endangered Species Act.

In the end, only 12 of Boxer and Merkley’s Democratic colleagues joined them in opposition:

Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

Dick Durbin (D-IL)

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Mazie Hirono (D-HI)

Patty Murray (D-WA)

Jack Reed (D-RI)

Harry Reid (D-NV)

Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Eight others joined Boxer in voting against cloture but chose to vote for the final bill: Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Angus King (I-ME), Ed Markey (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Tom Udall (D-NM).

Both of these happened when there was a Democratic president who (in theory) could afford Congressional Democrats more leverage. But we won’t be so lucky next year. How many concessions will Democrats make in the next few years — whether on their own demands or to the demands of the GOP — to avoid looking “obstructionist”?