Congress

Could the government shut down because of a pension fund for retired coal miners?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., right, wants Congress to pass a fix for a retired coal miners’ pension and health care fund before lawmakers go home for the month.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., right, wants Congress to pass a fix for a retired coal miners’ pension and health care fund before lawmakers go home for the month. AP Images for No Labels

One coal-state senator has vowed to block a must-pass spending bill to keep the government open unless Congress approves a fix for a pension and health care fund for retired coal miners that faces default by the end of the month.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters Tuesday that a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to include a temporary fix in a stopgap spending bill would not be good enough.

“I just want it fixed,” Manchin said.

The United Mine Workers of America health care and pension fund faces insolvency because of a string of coal-industry bankruptcies. Only 10,000 active workers remain to support more than 100,000 retirees, and many of those retired miners and their families depend on the benefits.

Without congressional intervention, more than 16,000 retired miners are set to lose their health benefits on Dec. 31.

“This is basically all they’ve got,” Manchin said.

The issue has been unresolved for months, even after thousands of miners came to the Capitol in September to push lawmakers for a fix.

Manchin is the lead sponsor of the Miners Protection Act, which would tap excess funds from a federal abandoned mine reclamation program to protect the health benefit payments. Nearly half of the bill’s 24 co-sponsors are Republicans.

McConnell said Tuesday that he advised House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to include an extension of health-care benefits for the miners in a bigger spending bill that would last through the end of April.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that will be a part of the (continuing resolution) once it comes over to us from the House,” he told reporters at the Capitol.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who’s set to be the leader of Senate Democrats in January, called that approach “unacceptable.”

Manchin wants a separate vote on the issue, or to attach his measure to a cancer-research bill expected to pass before Congress adjourns. He’s using a strategy often employed by senators to get what they want: A single senator has the power to hold up the legislative process, but usually the chamber works it out.

Manchin’s move could mean keeping the Senate in session longer than planned, though other issues, including flood relief for Louisiana, as well as addressing drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan, could delay the chamber’s adjournment.

“I’m sorry if they want to go home Friday,” he said. “That’s not gonna happen. ... these people are losing everything Dec. 31 for the convenience of us to go home early. That’s not right.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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