Congress nears deal on help for miners

Congress nears deal on help for miners

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he wants a long-term fix for miners' healthcare benefits in the next government funding bill, moving Congress closer to a deal on the issue.

“I’m in favor of a permanent fix on miners' healthcare. It’s my hope that that will be included in the final package,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday after meeting with the GOP caucus.

The question of what to do about the government-backed healthcare benefits for coal miners has complicated congressional spending debates in the past.

McConnell’s endorsement is significant because he had previously supported temporary fixes but had never backed a long-term legislative solution.

The healthcare fund, administered by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), will be in trouble at the end of the month unless Congress acts.

Senators on the finance and spending panels, as well as lawmakers representing coal country, said earlier Tuesday they expect to include a fix for miner healthcare benefits in legislation to fund the government through the fall. 

“I think we’re working hard to make sure it’s permanent. That’s absolutely critical,” Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate women: Rules on harassment must change Congress, here's a CO2-smart tax fix to protect, create jobs Women, Dems leading sexual harassment discussion in Congress: analysis MORE (R-W.Va.) said. “We’ve been working not just the Senate side but the House side. I’m feeling optimistic, but I want to see it in writing.” 

“It seems that there is consensus in the Senate, across both parties,” Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Overnight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules MORE (D-Ohio) said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah) confirmed reports of progress on Tuesday morning. 

“We should try to provide meaningful relief to retired mine workers,” he said. “I feel very deeply about them, and I am working with other senators on both sides towards that end.”

Retired miners were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby for the legislation, a trip they have made multiple times in recent months.

President Trump has not yet spoken publicly on the issue despite his support for regulatory rollbacks to help the coal industry. Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (D-W.Va.) and other coal-country lawmakers have urged Trump address the issue.

“It would be nice to have a public statement on it, but I think the support is there,” Capito said.

Capito wrote to Trump in December about breaking the cycle of temporary measures to shore up miners' benefits. He responded by writing “Great — I am all for the miners” on her letter and mailing it back to her.

It’s unclear how the deal will be received in the House. Aides for Republican leadership and the Appropriations Committee didn’t comment, and a Democratic aide said there’s no deal in the lower chamber.

More than 22,000 retired coal miners or their dependents are facing cuts to their healthcare benefits due to the broader decline of the coal industry.

Companies that have previously provided payments to retirees’ pension and healthcare plans have filed for bankruptcy in droves, forcing the federal government to step in and guarantee miners’ benefits. 

Several lawmakers have been searching for a way to ensure that the funds escape insolvency over the long term. 

Supporters of the attempts to shore up the fund say that the federal government has promised to help coal miners with their healthcare and pension costs for decades, and now must keep its word.

The emerging deal would let the miners’ health fund take money from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which mining companies pay into to support government cleanup at old mining sites.

Congress approved such transfers twice last year, but only temporarily. Lawmakers are now seeking a long-term or indefinite deal. 

Coal-country lawmakers and the retired miners want Congress to solve the healthcare and pension issues at the same time, and they say the cleanup fund has the money to support it. But it appears lawmakers will only deal with healthcare in the upcoming funding bill, and the coal-state senators have agreed to put off the pension issue for the time being.

“I think it’s ridiculous not to get it all done at the same time. I’ve always said that,” said Manchin, who is up for reelection next year. “But that being said, it looks like we’re not.”

Manchin convinced Democrats to block a waiver allowing Robert Lighthizer to be Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative until the miners’ healthcare and pension issues are dealt with.

Lighthizer needs the waiver because federal law prohibits former advocates for foreign governments from holding the job.

Manchin said Tuesday that the agreement on healthcare is sufficient for him to let Lighthizer proceed. 

Though most members were optimistic about reaching a deal Tuesday, several cautioned that they have yet to finalize a plan.

“I think we’re going to get a solution on it because I think we have some good options,” said Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenMcConnell works to salvage tax bill GOP to reduce tax relief by 0B to win over deficit hawks  The Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill MORE (R-N.D.), a member of the Appropriations Committee.

“Now, whether that gets all done or whether we have a shorter-term arrangement in the [spending bill], that’s still being discussed and I don’t know. We’ll see. I think we’ll get something done.”