WASHINGTON -- An unusually animated Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said Friday he would vote against a must-pass spending bill needed to keep the government running, arguing that the measure does not include enough money to extend health benefits and pensions for retired coal miners, including nearly 13,000 in Pennsylvania.
But Casey and fellow lawmakers from coal-mining states said they would not stall the process long enough to shut down the federal government, allowing a vote to proceed before the government's spending authority expires. Despite opposition from Casey and several Democrats from coal-mining states, the spending bill is expected to pass Friday night -- allowing them to register opposition without the disruption of a shutdown. The measure cleared the U.S. House earlier this week.
The measure would fund health benefits for retired miners for four months -- a time frame Casey and other Democrats from coal country said is insufficient -- and includes no money for pensions for retirees whose retirement funds are in danger of running dry. Miners' supporters point to a 1946 agreement in which the federal government pledged to back coal-miners' retirement benefits.
"We've got to ask ourselves whether or not we're going to fulfill our promise," Casey said on the Senate floor Friday evening. "There is no excuse for putting in the continuing resolution as pathetic a proposal as we got this year ... which basically says you have health care for just four months and you're supposed to be satisfied with that."
Republican leaders have argued that the issue can be addressed next year, and some worry about bailing out a pension fund from private businesses.
Democrats, including Casey, have long criticized Republicans for blockading critical spending bills in an effort to win policy gains, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act. He obliquely acknowledged that fact, saying "we're doing something that many of us have never done, we're going to vote 'no' on a resolution tonight to make it very clear that we don't agree with what is in" the bill.
But he said the opposition will increase the focus on the miners' plight and, facing reelection in 2018, promised that the workers' supporters are "just getting warmed up" and will bring the fight back in the New Year.
Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) also took to the floor, joining Democrats from West Virginia and Ohio in blasting the spending bill and vowing to vote against it, despite the threat of a shutdown. He said that while he has never opposed a bill to keep the government funded, it was important to "send a signal that we and many other senators are determined to fix this problem."
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has said he supports a bill to fund miners' pensions, but a spokeswoman declined to say Friday afternoon how he will vote on the spending bill.