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Time Is Running Out for Republicans in Senate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

With Election Day quickly approaching, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs to put some legislative wins on the board.  Republicans currently hold a three-seat advantage in the Senate and it is widely expected Sen. Jones will lose his seat in Alabama requiring the Democrats to win either four or five seats depending on the outcome of the presidential election to take control of the Senate.

In this current cycle, the Republicans (with 23 seats up for election versus the Democrats’ 12) will be playing defense in Maine, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina.  Recent polling is showing a closer race in Montana with Democratic Governor Steve Bullock taking on incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines.

While national issues such as the coronavirus response, the economy, and civil rights and justice will be widely discussed and debated, there will be issues that are important to large blocks of diverse voters which may move the needle in close races. Senate Republicans need to champion these issues to increase their chances of maintaining control.

 For instance, numerous multiemployer pensions face a funding crisis. These plans pooled assets to provide retirement income for employees across different employers. Unfortunately, with many of the original employers out of business and legal mandates for funding, these plans are short on cash to meet those promised benefits.  Developing a feasible plan to save these plans and secure the safety net for retired workers is an issue that resonates with swing voters. Both large employers and employee unions are impacted, and it is possible the party that champions a solution to underfunded multiemployer pension plans will have an edge this fall.

The Retirement Security Coalition polled voters in multiple swing states and concluded that voters want Congress to solve the pension crisis now.  This poll is evidence whomever enacts a solution to the crisis now will be rewarded handsomely in November.

Not only does the polling support an acceptable pension reform, but there is bipartisan support for tackling this immediately.  In a bipartisan op-ed, former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and former House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY), write, “during the last fiscal year alone, six multiemployer plans were terminated, and eight others requested financial assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the federal backstop for plans that can no longer cover promised benefits.” They argue that “the PBGC is also projected to become insolvent in five years, making their ‘guaranty’ not much better than a band-aid solution.” When there is no federal backstop and pension plans remain underfunded, retirees will see a massive drop in benefits.

If Senate Republicans can follow the lead of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and deliver action, they can win the issue. Sen. Portman recognizes that the PBGC “is set to become insolvent within five years, further jeopardizing the retirement security of at least 1.4 million Americans” and pleaded for “the need for any bipartisan multiemployer pension reform legislation to address both the immediate crisis with respect to the PBGC, and the longer-term structural issues that created the conditions for the persistent underfunding of multiemployer pension plans in the first place.” Sen. Portman pitched a solution of a “shared responsibility approach,” which includes public money and plan participants to shore up and maintain funding for these plans. Senate Republicans would be wise to heed his advice and follow his lead.

Right now, polling indicates Republicans are in trouble this fall and could lose enough seats to hand over control of the Senate to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Delivering on this issue might be the silver bullet issue that keeps Republican control of the Senate in 2021 and beyond.

Peter Mihalick is former Legislative Director and Counsel to former Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and Rodney Blum (R-IA).

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