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Manchin says he’ll turn to Trump for help on coal miner benefits

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

As efforts to enact a long-term federal funding fix for coal miner health benefits and pensions appeared increasingly unlikely to succeed before Congress adjourns for the year, Sen. Joe Manchin said Friday his next step will be to turn to President-elect Donald Trump for help in resolving a crisis affecting tens of thousands of retired United Mine Workers retirees.

The West Virginia Democrat said that he hopes a new Republican administration might be able to use its influence with congressional GOP leaders to make the matter a legislative priority. His comments came as time was running out on maneuvers by Manchin and other Democrats to amend the longer-term fix into a government spending bill needed to keep federal agencies running.

“I know that Donald Trump won every coal area of this country,” Manchin said in an interview. “I am going to encourage him to speak out and be involved in this once he takes office next year. That could change the whole dynamics of this thing.”

Manchin had been scheduled to meet with Trump on Friday in New York, amid reports Manchin was being considered for a cabinet post, but the meeting was postponed until Monday because Manchin was busy in Washington trying to figure out some way to squeeze the UMW pension and health care legislation through the Senate.

UMW retirees and their families are facing uncertainty as their pension and health care benefits — covering 120,000 current and future retirees — spiral into financial insolvency, in the latest in a long line of threats from the industry’s own economic woes, critical losses during stock market plunges and efforts by many in the coal industry to back out of long-term commitments to retiree programs.

Trump is not known to have mentioned the issue publicly during his presidential campaign. Democrat Hillary Clinton, like the Obama administration, included a long-term fix for the UMW benefits as part of a broader plan to provide financial help to struggling coalfield communities.

Over the last week, Manchin and a block of Senate Democrats have been threatening to halt other legislation — and potentially bring on a federal government shutdown — over the impending loss of health benefits for more than 16,000 retirees and surviving widows after Dec. 31 because of bankruptcy court rulings that allowed some companies to abandon benefit programs as part of their restructuring plans.

Their efforts had managed to get into the House-passed spending bill only $45 million for health benefits for those more than 16,000 retirees. It includes no fix for the union’s pension plan and the health care benefit money it does provide it takes from an existing union benefit program that covers a different group of retirees. The spending bill was aimed at avoiding a government shutdown starting Saturday and federal agency operations through late April.

Other retirees from other companies are scheduled to lose their health benefits later next year.

The spending bill, with only the four-month health benefit extension, passed the House by a vote of 326-96. West Virginia Republicans David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins voted in favor of the bill as it was presented.

Manchin acknowledged that he and the other Democrats — including coal-state Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mark Warner of Virginia and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — appeared to be getting little traction on their proposal to extend the temporary benefit measure from four months to a year.

“We’re having a hard time,” Manchin said Friday afternoon. “But I think we’re going to win eventually.”

Absent a deal on the UMW retiree issue, there was expected to be a post-midnight vote to advance the spending bill over a filibuster barrier, with passage of the measure at some point this weekend, The Associated Press reported.

Though a lapse in government funding was possible, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said a shutdown wouldn’t begin immediately in any event, especially if the White House budget office was sure that the temporary funding measure would pass later Saturday, the AP said.

Manchin and other coal-state Democrats said that they would vote against ending debate on the spending bill and against the spending bill itself.

“They gave us four months and I guess we’re supposed to be happy with that,” Manchin said. “Well, I’m not.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., planned to vote with Manchin’s Democratic faction to keep delaying a vote on the spending bill because of the UMW benefits issue, a spokeswoman said.

Earlier in the day Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had scolded the Democrats for not simply accepting a four-month extension of health benefits for more than 16,000 UMW retirees who are currently set to lose those benefits after Dec. 31.

“This is a good time to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” said McConnell.

Last year, McConnell blocked the UMW-backed long-term benefit fix from being added to another last-minute spending bill. He committed Friday to working for such a long-term solution next year, saying it was “highly unlikely” that the benefits would ultimately not be funded.

McConnell and other Republicans continued to blame the UMW retiree benefit crisis on the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, saying that tougher environmental rules had brought on the coal industry downturn, pushing companies into bankruptcy and making them unable to keep paying into the union’s benefit programs.

“The Democrats have waged an all-out, complete war on coal and that’s why we’re in that situation,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.

Most experts, though, have said that while environmental rules play a role, competition from low-priced natural gas has been the main driver in coal’s decline.

Also, the UMW-based Miners Protection Act is only the most recent in a long line of government actions aimed at protecting coal miners, whose work often leaves them sick or disabled, but whose industry has frequently tried to dodge long-term liabilities for health care benefits and pensions.

The bill would allow the pensions and benefits to be funded through part of a transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that already flow through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program annually, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned mine cleanup program and UMW health care benefit programs.

In September, the bill easily passed through the Senate Finance Committee, and its 25 co-sponsors include 11 Republicans, including Capito.

Government involvement in the issue dates back to the 1940s, when creation of a health and welfare fund for miners through a deal between legendary UMW President John L. Lewis and then-Interior Secretary Julius A. Krug helped end a stalemate between the union and the government, which had seized the nation’s mines in response to a strike.

More recently, Congress passed legislation in 1992 to preserve benefits for UMW retirees, as coal companies tried to abandon the union’s national contract and benefit programs. And since 1995, interest on the federal AML program’s trust fund — a fund that comes from coal industry taxes — was diverted to ensure health care benefits for retirees.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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