House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is considering a 28-month extension of retired coal miners’ health benefits, but his plan could inflame a dispute that threatens to trigger a partial government shutdown next week.
Senate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, have vowed to use whatever means they have to force Congress to take care of the health care issue once and for all with a permanent fix.
Congress faces a deadline next Friday to approve funding for most of the government through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. If it doesn’t act, many agencies will shut down on April 29, the 100th day of the Trump presidency. Lawmakers are considering several spending ideas, including only a one- or two-week extension.
The miners’ plight is one of several unresolved issues. Among the biggest: The White House has signaled that it wants money for its U.S.-Mexico border wall, but Democrats are balking.
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The miners’ issue almost shut down the government in December, the last time Congress had to approve legislation to keep most of the government open.
The miners’ struggle has its roots in a 1946 deal between President Harry Truman and coal companies to end a crippling strike that included a guarantee of lifetime health and pension benefits for union mine workers.
Workers who paid into the system naturally expected to receive the benefits they were promised, but today there are vastly more retirees than workers to support them.
This time, Ryan told Rep. Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican who’s one of the leading voices on the issue, that the shorter extension would be included in the spending bill Congress must pass by the end of next week to keep the government open.
AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said lawmakers continued to negotiate over the spending bill, but would not comment specifically on the miners’ issue.
Ryan is likely trying to appease a faction of ultra-conservative Republicans who balk at what they consider a bailout for a private industry’s obligations. Otherwise, he risks losing so many Republicans that he can’t pass the spending bill with his party’s support alone.
“The speaker said we’re going to take care of it for a two-year period,” said Bost, adding that Ryan’s staff had told him it would last for 28 months.
It would be second temporary extension of the health benefits that go to more than 22,000 United Mine Workers of America retirees and their widows. The spending bill Congress passed in December extended their health care until April 28.
Bost, whose southwestern Illinois district includes one of the highest concentrations of retired union mine workers in the country, said he’d continue to press for a permanent fix for the health benefits, as well as a looming crisis in the retired miners’ pension fund.
“I’m glad we’re providing the additional time,” he said. “Let’s get this done. Let’s move this forward.”
It’s not clear that the latest proposal would work for Senate Democrats and some Republicans who have said that anything less than a permanent fix would be unacceptable.
Last week, the entire West Virginia congressional delegation wrote the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate, pushing for a permanent health care solution.
“Anything less is merely an extension of the ongoing uncertainty and agony that these men and women have been carrying for years,” wrote Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, joined by the state’s three Republican House members and Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.
Coal state lawmakers, including Manchin, Capito, Brown, Bost, Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and David McKinley, R-W.Va., have been trying for months to get congressional leaders to bring a permanent health care and pension fix to the floor, but without success.
McKinley attempted to use his vote earlier this year on the House Republican Obamacare replacement bill as leverage, even asking President Donald Trump personally during a White House visit. That effort fizzled, though, when Ryan withdrew the bill for lack of Republican votes.
The United Mine Workers of America has transported thousands of retired miners to the Capitol to lobby members of Congress on the issue, including a September rally where about 100 were arrested for sitting in a parking lot on Capitol Hill.
The union spent more than $2 million on its lobbying efforts on the issue last year, according to disclosure forms. More miners will visit the Capitol next week as the clock ticks down to Friday.
“In a perfect world, we would have already had this done,” Bost said.
The issue is a personal one for Bost, who was first elected to Illinois’ 12th Congressional District in 2014. Among the 3,500 retirees in southern Illinois affected are Bost’s uncle, cousins and close friends.
Though Trump lost Illinois to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November, the president carried Bost’s district by 15 points. Trump campaigned hard in coal-producing regions, and they rewarded him by helping him win the White House.
Bost said the long-term health care fix would be paid for using the interest off a federal fund for reclamation of abandoned mine lands, a solution that should appeal to fiscal conservatives in the White House and Congress.
“We’re using an industry revenue stream,” Bost said. “We’re not going to the taxpayers. I want the administration to be well aware of it.”