WASHINGTON ― After more than a year of stalling, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday pushed to extend health benefits for retired coal miners and their widows in a government funding bill lawmakers hope to take up this week.
A bipartisan group of senators has pressured McConnell for months to bring legislation that would direct $3 billion over the next 10 years into health care and pension funds for miners. Roughly 17,000 retired miners are set to lose their health care benefits later this month, and an additional 4,000 would early next year without congressional action.
McConnell said he urged House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to include a measure that would extend at least the health benefits for another four months ― the length of the continuing resolution (CR) Congress needs to vote on by Dec. 9 to keep the government open.
“I’ve spoken with the speaker on a number of occasions about an issue facing coal miner retirees like those I represent in Kentucky,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I have insisted that the CR include a provision to address that issue so these retirees don’t lose their health care benefits at the end of the year.”
That isn’t good enough for a number of Senate Democrats and Republicans who first tried last year to force McConnell’s hand on legislation that would have protected the pensions, in addition to the health care benefits, for thousands of retired and disabled coal miners. McConnell didn’t budge then, nor when the same bipartisan group of senators tried to leverage their votes on a bill to help Puerto Rico restructure its billions of dollars in debt.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who says he is tired of waiting, vowed Tuesday to block any special requests to expedite other bills until action is taken to help the 120,000 miners. Supporters of the bill argue it’s time to follow through on the promise made by the federal government 70 years ago to protect the United Mine Workers’ health and pension benefits.
“For several months, we have joined thousands of our states’ retired coal miners and their families to call for a vote on this bipartisan, paid-for bill,” Manchin said Tuesday. “And for several months those calls have gone unanswered. These miners cannot wait another day, and it’s up to us to protect what they’ve earned for a lifetime of dangerous, backbreaking work.”
Manchin wants the full bill, the Miners Protection Act, included in the CR. But the text of the continuing resolution, which was unveiled later Tuesday night, only included the language pushed by McConnell ― providing $45 million for continued health benefits, preventing the loss of health coverage for thousands of miners and their families.
“They’ve kind of given up on pensions, at least temporarily,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “We really should do something to help the miners. We think it should be a full five-year funding provision, and we got a number of Democratic senators who are going to hang very close on that always.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will take Reid’s place as the minority leader next year, accused Republicans of opposing campaign promises made by President-elect Donald Trump to help coal miners.
“Time and time again, the president-elect said he’d be a champion for coal miners and said he’d stop the war on coal,” Schumer said. “What do Republicans in Washington have to say about that? They tried to throw our coal miners a bone and merely extended their health care benefits by a couple of months.”
Asked why the language provides financial support only for the health benefits, which along with the pensions are at risk of going insolvent as the coal industry battles bankruptcies, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed to McConnell.
“Sounds like a Mitch McConnell war on coal miners,” Durbin told reporters.
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, shot back, pointing out that “originally there was no extension.”
“How does preventing the loss of health care benefits on Dec. 31 constitute a war on coal miners?” Stewart said. “Sen. Durbin wants to block their health care?”
Durbin wouldn’t say if Democrats would threaten a shutdown over the miner provision, noting that Republicans weren’t talking to them about the details of the continuing resolution. He added, though, that many Democrats feel that Manchin has been “patient to a fault” waiting for a vote to help the retired coal miners.
“There’s always a risk when facing a deadline on Friday night,” Durbin said.
Democrats aren’t alone. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) joined Manchin and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in voting against advancing a massive bipartisan medical research bill on Monday night over the health and pension benefits.
“The pension and health benefits of thousands of retired coal miners in Ohio remain in jeopardy, and the Senate must act,” Portman said in a statement, adding that the full Miner’s Protection Act language should either be attached to the continuing resolution or another must-pass bill before Congress leaves for the year.
Portman has not said if he will support the CR if the pension benefits are not included.
When pressed about calls for the full bill to be voted on, McConnell stood by his initial recommendation to House Republicans.
“What I support is... miners’ health care for the duration of the CR,” McConnell said.
A recent Congressional Budget Office report found that the full Miners Protection Act would save the government money ― $74 million ― over the 10-year life of the bill if passed. It would be paid for by hiking customs fees on imported goods.
“The Republican leader is turning his back on American coal miners,” Sen. Brown said in an emailed statement. “We had the chance to protect the retirement and health care coal miners have earned and save taxpayers money in the process, but Washington leaders chose to pull a bait and switch instead. This is everything that’s wrong with Washington.”