- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2017

With lives literally hanging in the balance, Congress is headed toward another last-minute showdown over health care and pensions for retired coal miners — some of whom have vowed to remain on Capitol Hill for 30 days to pressure lawmakers to act.

Funding for retired miners’ health care will expire April 30, giving Congress roughly four weeks to settle on a solution for the nearly 23,000 workers and widows who face the prospect of losing their government-guaranteed coverage. It’s the second time in just four months that the debate has gone down to the wire.

Late last year, Congress passed a four-month extension of miners’ health care benefits — hardly the long-term solution retirees and their allies were looking for.

“This sense of uncertainty for senior citizens, especially some of these older folks who frankly don’t understand what’s going on and why this is a problem — it’s creating a great sense of anxiety out there,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

The battle comes against the backdrop of President Trump’s vow to resuscitate the nation’s lagging coal industry. Over the past several weeks, he has taken a number of actions to reduce federal environmental regulations on mining and open more land to coal exploration.

In the past, the president has voiced support for taking care of retired miners and their families, though the White House has yet to come out forcefully on the looming health care crisis.

But lawmakers from coal-producing states are keeping the issue in the spotlight. Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, met with miners and their families Friday and said the government has a clear moral obligation to do something.

“How long did it take them to bail out Wall Street?” Mr. Manchin said, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper. “They started working the same night the [financial] crash happened. If you can bail out Wall Street in one day, can’t you at least take care of the obligation to the United Mine Workers of America? Can’t you take care of the people that made this country?”

The federal government has a standing commitment to cover health care and pensions for retired miners. A string of high-profile coal company bankruptcies in recent years has left retirees and their families dependent on those government guarantees.

On Capitol Hill, virtually everyone agrees that something must be done, but there is deep disagreement on exactly how far-reaching the final legislation should be.

Mr. Manchin — along with a group of senators from both parties — are pushing the Miners Protection Act, which would offer long-term funding for retirees’ health care and would inject money into a sagging pension fund for miners. About 89,000 people draw from that pension fund, and the UMWA says another 30,000 will be eligible once they reach retirement age.

While health care benefits expire April 30, Mr. Smith said, the pension fund won’t be “completely out of money” until 2022. Leading lawmakers want to address health care and pensions separately, arguing that there simply isn’t the same sense of urgency with regard to the pension fund.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has introduced legislation to deal only with health care.

“Sen. McConnell is focused on the pressing issue of securing the health benefits for our retired coal miners, which are set to expire at the end of April. The pension issue is a critical yet separate matter,” said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.

Indeed, even proponents of the Miners Protection Act seem to be acknowledging the political reality that, with Mr. McConnell at the helm of the Senate, health care and pensions are unlikely to be bundled into one legislative package.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, last week said they would continue pushing for the Miners Protection Act but made clear that they would back a more limited measure if that is the only choice.

Both senators are co-sponsors of the Miners Protection Act.

“Sen. Portman supports fixing the health care issue if that is the only option, but he is going to continue fighting for the full Miner’s Protection Act until it is signed into law,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Portman.

Ms. Capito’s office said the senator is encouraged by Mr. McConnell’s legislation addressing health care benefits and seemed to signal that she would back the bill if it’s the only piece of legislation that comes up for a vote.

In the meantime, Mr. Smith said, retired miners will remain on Capitol Hill each day through April 30 to pressure lawmakers. He said the UMWA supports a long-term health care fix but is trying to impress upon Congress that pushing off the pensions issue will cause a bigger problem down the road.

“If you don’t start putting money into it now, you need to put more money into it later,” Mr. Smith said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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