Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., offered a sense of cautious optimism Friday regarding the fate of the Miners Protection Act in the context of a potential government shutdown, which occurs if Congress does not pass a federal spending plan by April 28.
Fielding questions at Charleston’s Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, Capito said she thinks the idea that the government will shut down has been over-hyped. She said she believes a spending bill will pass and include a long-term fix for miners who lost their health care as a result of their employers going bankrupt during 2012 and 2015 — Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and Alpha Natural Resources.
“It’s critical that we pass a permanent health care extension for miners next week,” she said. “It expires at the end of the week, we cannot keep dragging people for six-month and one-year extensions.”
Along with the other members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, Capito said she has been working to fund miners’ health care plans and preserve the long-term benefits of their 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Fund.
However, given the deadline, she said they will focus on funding health care plans, and then work on preserving the pension fund down the line.
“We’ve got to have the permanent health care fix, we can live to fight on the pensions another day,” she said. “I think it looks more like the health care is the one we’re working hardest on, at this point, and [it] has the most likelihood of actually getting there.”
As it stands, 22,600 miners across the nation will lose their health care benefits without an extension, which includes almost 8,500 West Virginians, according to a news release from Capito’s office.
Additionally, 89,000 miners currently receive pensions from the UMW pension fund, and another 29,000 are vested in the program, according to miners union figures.
The senator’s comments come in the wake of a letter, signed by the entire West Virginia delegation and UMW President Cecil Roberts, urging congressional leadership to include the miners’ benefits in the government spending bill.
“As Congress considers a continuing resolution to keep the government running, we fully expect that such a vehicle will include the permanent health care fix for our nation’s retired miners as promised at the end of 2016 and proposed in the Miners Protection Act,” the letter states. “Anything less is merely an extension of the ongoing uncertainty and agony that these men and women have been carrying for years. Anything less is an unacceptable and tragic failure of this body to keep its word to the men and women who powered our nation to prosperity at the risk of their own health and lives.”
Along with miners’ issues, several policy items could stand in the way of a consensus on a funding bill next week, including President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and an amended version of the American Health Care Act, which flopped last month.
A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Capito said there is a need to curb the flow of illegal immigration into the United States but that she thinks Congress won’t get to discussing the wall or its funding for a few months.
Capito said she would support it if it came up next week.
“I can support a border wall, but I don’t think it will come out as one big, full package,” she said. “I would like to see us fortify our Border Patrol first, and work on technologies that may be as effective or more effective than a wall before we move forward with it.”
In regard to the amended health care plan, Capito said she had not had time to review it and declined to speculate on it.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.