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Government Shutdown Looms as Senate Grapples With Budget and Water Bills

by Countable | 12.9.16

When members of the House departed the Capitol on Thursday after passing to fund the government beyond tonight’s deadline through most of April, it appeared as though the 114th Congress might be coming to anti-climactic close so long as the Senate followed suit.

Now, it appears that things won’t go as smoothly as some lawmakers might have hoped, with an impasse over healthcare benefits for miners and the impact a water infrastructure bill could have endangered fish threatening to cause a government shutdown at 11:59:59 EST Friday night.

What’s the Senate fighting about?

There are two pieces of legislation that the Senate will have to pass before it adjourns for the year — the CR and a water infrastructure and drought relief bill — both of which have irked Senate Democrats and raised the threat of a shutdown for their own reasons.

On Tuesday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said that he would attempt to block the government funding bill passed by the House known as a continuing resolution (or CR) unless a long-term solution to keep healthcare benefits for miners in place was reached and included.

Under current law over 15,000 miners and their families would lose healthcare coverage at the end of the year if funding isn’t reauthorized under the Miners Protection Act. The House-passed version of the CR contains $45 million in funding (all of which is offset, so it’s not new spending) that would go toward covering those miners and their families, but Manchin wants a longer reauthorization of the program.

The water infrastructure bill, which authorizes the $170 million provided by the CR to help communities like Flint, Michigan which are dealing with contaminated drinking water, has also raised concerns among Senate Democrats over whether drought relief provisions run afoul of the Endangered Species Act.

This particular disagreement has to do with protecting the California Delta Smelt, an endangered fish, from the increased pumping of water in California’s Central Valley Project and State Water Project that goes to farms in the state’s drought-stricken interior that’s permitted under the bill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who will retire when the 114th Congress concludes, vowed to fight against the proposal, saying "there is no place for that as long as I am breathing."

Whether Manchin or Boxer are able to rally enough of their fellow Senators to join their respective causes is an open question, but either will need a total of 41 votes to block the legislation when it comes up for a vote. The two Democrats will likely be able to rely on some of the other 44 Senators who caucus with their party to oppose the bills, but it won’t be uniform support.

Both of Michigan’s senators — Gary Peters (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D) — will be hard-pressed to vote against funding for their beleaguered constituents in Flint, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has said she supports the drought relief measure opposed by Boxer as a better alternative to "even more harmful drought legislation" that might pass in the next Congress.

What happens if there is a shutdown?

First of all, it would be a partial government shutdown, so it’s not as if the entire federal government would be closed for business. The military and federal law enforcement agencies would continue to do their job, and entitlement payments to Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries would still go out as usual.

Federal workers who are considered non-essential would be furloughed, meaning that they can’t work, although they have in the past received back pay following shutdowns. During the 2013 shutdown more than 818,000 federal workers were furloughed, which caused national parks to be closed and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to operate with only a small number of employees. Whether workers will be furloughed also depends on the status of an agency’s budget, as the State Dept. and Securities and Exchange Commission remained at full staff longer than other agencies during the last shutdown because of the funding they had leftover.

What constitutes a "non-essential" program or activity is a slippery definition. There have been concerns that the timing of this year’s would-be shutdown could impact the annual Army-Navy college football game, which pits the cadets of West Point against the midshipmen from Annapolis and is scheduled to kickoff in Baltimore, Maryland at noon Saturday. However, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) quashed those worries, saying “I promise you they’re not canceling that game. Pigs will fly before that game is canceled,” adding an executive order from President Obama could let the game be played despite a shutdown.

When will it end (if there is a shutdown)?

As of now, that remains to be seen. By preventing the CR from being passed by unanimous consent, Senate Democrats delayed votes until 1 a.m. EST on Saturday at the earliest unless they choose to end debate on the legislation. Once the CR is passed, a shutdown will officially be over, and the water bill doesn’t need to be passed prior to the CR so the Senate may continue debating that bill following a vote on the CR.

You can read the continuing resolution to fund the federal government through April 28 here, the water infrastructure and drought relief bill here, or tell your reps how to vote using the "Take Action" button.

— Eric Revell

Photo by Flickr user NCPA Photos

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