By Andrew Taylor
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a stopgap spending bill that would also expedite the likely confirmation of President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary next year.
Word of the bill came around the same time that Trump formally announced he had selected retired Gen. James Mattis for the top Pentagon job. Congress needs to change the law so a former military man can serve in the civilian post.
The spending measure would keep the government running through April and also contains $10 billion in supplemental war funding and $4 billion more for disaster relief for Louisiana and other states as key additions.
Under current law, Congress would need to pass legislation next year to grant Mattis an exception from a law that requires a seven-year wait for former members of the military to serve in the post. Tuesday’s provision would speed up action on the waiver though Democrats could still filibuster it.
The bill would also deliver $170 million in long-delayed help for Flint, Michigan, to fix its lead-tainted water system.
The underlying spending bill would prevent the government from shutting down this weekend and buy several months for the new Congress and incoming Trump administration to wrap up more than $1 trillion worth of unfinished agency budget bills. Republicans promise an immediate infusion next year of additional money for the Pentagon and may be eying the appropriations bills as vehicles to reverse a slew of Obama administration regulations.
Democrats complained the GOP measure shortchanged New York City by giving it just $7 million for police overtime costs for protecting Trump, who lives in midtown Manhattan. And they complained that a provision to help retired Appalachian coal miners keep their health benefits for a few months was woefully inadequate.
The bill attracted attention as the final legislative locomotive to leave the station before Congress closes shop this year. Nothing else on Capitol Hill’s agenda had the power to tow other unfinished legislation into law.
The White House and Main St. Republicans were denied in a bid to revive the Export-Import Bank’s ability to approve export financing deals exceeding $10 million. But the trucking lobby won permanent relief from recent Transportation Department rules mandating more rest and overnight breaks for long-haul drivers.
The $4 billion disaster package contains $1.8 billion for community development grants, much of which would go to rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by devastating summertime floods in Louisiana, Hurricane Matthew, and other disasters. Another $1 billion would go to the Army Corps of Engineers for flood and coastal storm protection projects and another $1 billion would repair damaged highways.
The $10.1 billion provided for Pentagon and State Department anti-terror efforts gave the Obama administration most of its $11.6 billion request.
One major dispute centered on protecting health care benefits for about 16,000 retired union coal miners facing the loss of coverage on Dec. 31. Both Democrats and Republicans from Appalachian coal states pressed for help for retired miners and their widows. House Republicans resisted offering help for the union members and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered only a short-term solution through April 28.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., protested that McConnell’s fix would only last for a few months vowed to push for a permanent solution. He’s vowing to block any Senate effort to move quickly on unrelated legislation until the miners’ fight was settled.
“Over two years ago, we promised the retired coal miners of America — we promised them and most of their families — and these are a lot of widows now — and we promise them that they would have their health care benefits, which were guaranteed to them, and their pensions,” Manchin said.
At issue are health benefits for retirees whose companies declared bankruptcy in recent years.
The Obama White House had requested $35 million to reimburse New York City for providing security for Trump and New York Democrats were upset when just $7 million was made available.
“Republicans’ failure to fully reimburse NYPD for its efforts to protect President-elect Trump is beyond disappointing,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who called the $7 million just a “down payment on the way to making New York City whole.”
The overall measure would keep the government running through April 28.
The legislation also officially funds the first, $872 million installment of a $6.3 billion measure — slated for a final vote in the Senate on Wednesday — to boost medical research and speed drug approvals. That measure also includes a $1.8 billion cancer research “moonshot” strongly supported by Vice President Joe Biden, as well as $1 billion over two years to prevent and treat abuse of opioids and other addictive drugs like heroin.
Lawmakers are again denying themselves a cost-of-living pay hike that’s fallen out of favor.