Another Congressional Clash Looms Over Coal Miners’ Health Benefits

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -
Lawmakers, coal-producing, coal, government shutdown, White House, nominee, health care benefits, coal miners
United States Trade Representative-nominee Robert Lighthizer testifies before the Senate Finance Committee during his confirmation hearing in March. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Lawmakers representing coal-producing states are using every political device they can — including threatening to trigger a partial government shutdown and holding up a White House nominee — to prevent health care benefits for more than 22,000 retired miners from expiring at the end of April.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has threatened to indefinitely delay President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. trade representative unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings the miners’ health care fix to a vote.

Rep. David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, threatened to vote against the Republican House leadership’s health care replacement bill as leverage and secured a pledge from Mr. Trump to help the retired miners.

Senate Democrats, including Mr. Manchin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, almost forced a government shutdown in December over the issue, until Mr. McConnell negotiated a four-month extension of the benefits. With the clock ticking on that extension, they haven’t ruled out doing it again.

“We’re gonna just keep doing what we’re doing,” Mr. Brown said.

Earlier this month, more than 22,000 retired miners or their widows got notices that they wouldn’t have health care after April 28. It’s the second time in four months this has happened; some 16,000 got identical notices late last year their benefits were at risk.

“The whole point of insurance is it gives you some security,” Brown said. “Well, it’s just outrageous to put people through that.”

Manchin said he’d delay a confirmation vote on Robert Lighthizer, the trade nominee.

“I hate to do it,” Manchin said. “It’s not who I am.”

Manchin said he even told the nominee himself what he planned to do. In Senate language, Manchin is threatening a “hold,” a parliamentary procedure that senators sometimes use as leverage for something a senator wants. It doesn’t mean Manchin opposes Mr. Lighthizer.

“I said, ‘Bob I’m sorry.’ You’re the only vehicle I have to get the miners some kind of justice,’ ” Manchin said he told Lighthizer.

McKinley raised the issue in a White House meeting with more than a dozen House GOP members and Mr. Trump on Wednesday to discuss a Republican Obamacare replacement bill. McKinley said Mr. Trump agreed to call on House leaders to address the miners’ health benefits.

Messrs. Trump and Ryan pulled the health care bill Friday afternoon after they couldn’t get enough Republican votes to pass it. It’s unclear how the bill’s failure will affect negotiations over the miners’ benefits.

“We have a health care issue that’s unresolved,” McKinley said. “So if I’m going to deal with this health care, let’s finish the deal and help take care of our miners. They deserve to know what the solution is so they can plan.”

Brown said he’d asked Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to consider a new bill. In September, the committee overwhelmingly approved the Miners Protection Act, a bill co-sponsored by Brown and Manchin, but the measure didn’t come to the Senate floor by year’s end.

Instead, in December, McConnell tried to get a yearlong extension for the benefits. House leaders wouldn’t agree to it and passed a stopgap government spending bill that extended the benefits for four months.

“Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course, I would have,” McConnell said on the Senate floor in December. “My request to the House was to fund it for a full year. But we’ll be back at it in April, and I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll take it away.”

In January, McConnell introduced a bill that would make the health benefits permanent. McKinley is the lead sponsor of the House version.

Lawmakers expect Congress to approve a permanent fix for the miners this time, but efforts to avoid a cutoff may again come down to the wire. Congress will take a two-week recess in the middle of April. When they return, they’ll have four days to act before the late April deadline.