Energy

Dems Threaten Gov’t Shutdown Over Coal Miner Pensions

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor
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Democratic lawmakers held up legislation that would fund the federal government through April unless it includes language for taxpayer guaranteed health care and pension plans for retired coal miners.

Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Warner of Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and others want Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act, which would fund soon-to-expire benefits packages for retired miners.

House lawmakers included language to fund healthcare benefits for 12,500 retired coal miners in the final version of the bill that’s supposed to keep the federal government open through April. Miners pensions weren’t included in the continuing resolution.

The House passed the funding bill Thursday morning, but coal state Democrats have held it up in the Senate.

Democrats want taxpayers to guarantee pension plans for more than 120,000 miners. Manchin, Casey, Brown and Heitkamp face potentially tough reelection battles in 2018.

“I want my colleagues to know that I am not objecting to the content or to my friends,” Manchin said on the Senate floor in early December. “I am objecting on behalf of the miners and their families who need their pension and healthcare benefits they have earned.”

Other Democrats are trying to hold up the funding bill to insert a “buy American” provision into a water infrastructure bill, but Republicans have closed the door on that provision or language covering miner pensions being included.

“I think that ship has sailed,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told Politico.

Democrats could hold up passing the funding bill until Sunday, when the government runs out of money. Backing miners pensions could cost $3 billion — a price tag that’s kept many lawmakers from backing the proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he “insisted” miners’ health care plans be funded and urged coal country lawmakers to accept the deal.

But Democrats are calling on President-elect Donald Trump to extend benefits for coal miners who overwhelmingly supported him in the 2016 election.

“Who’s for the working people? Where’s Donald Trump on miners?” asked Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who’s up for re-election in 2018.

The government funding bill would sell off $375.4 million worth of oil from the Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to, in part, fund a $45 million plan to pay the health care costs for about 12,500 retired coal miners that was set to expire at the end of this year.

The United Mine Workers’ pension fund is facing huge financial shortfalls as thousands of coal miners get laid off and major coal companies file for bankruptcy protection. There’s now just one coal miner supporting 13 retirees, and bankruptcies have allowed companies to cut their commitments to the pension fund.

If the miner’s pension fails, it would be backed by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, but lawmakers worry even that may not be enough to pay out all the promised benefits.

Previous legislation committed up to $490 million to fund miners’ health and pension plans, but experts worried this could open the door to bailing out more than $600 billion in pensions promised to other unions.

“Pension bailouts would encourage employers, unions, and pension fund trustees to promise substantial pension benefits to their employees without setting aside the funds to pay for those benefits,” Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in a report.

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