Q&A: Questions and answers in dispute over miners benefits

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2016 6:04 PM
Q&A: Questions and answers in dispute over miners benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) — Coal-state Democrats waged a fight for health benefits for thousands of retired miners, pointing to President Harry S. Truman's promise 70 years ago guaranteeing a lifetime of coverage. The stopgap spending bill contains a short-term fix and the issue will be revisited next spring.

Here are some questions and answers about the dispute.

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Q. Why did Democrats stall the spending bill?

A. Democrats and some coal-state Republicans are pushing to protect health care for about 16,500 miners whose benefits are set to expire Jan. 1. Another 4,000 families face a loss of benefits by the end of 2017.

Republican leaders said this week they would extend health benefits, but only through the end of April, when the short-term spending bill expires. Senate Democrats wanted the benefits extended for at least a year.

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Q. What about pensions? Aren't they part of a larger dispute?

A. Yes. Democrats and some coal-state Republicans have been pushing for a long-term bill to protect health care and pension benefits for more than 100,000 retired miners and their families. Supporters say the election-year bill would fulfill the 1946 government promise for lifetime health care and pension benefits for unionized miners and their families.

Retirement and health-care funds currently support former miners and their families, but account balances have dwindled amid the coal's industry steep decline, including continued layoffs and bankruptcy filings.

Without congressional intervention, some of the funds could run out of cash by next year, according to the United Mine Workers of America.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP leaders are wary of bailing out unionized workers, with some arguing that all coal miners should get the help. Some Republicans also say the bill could pressure Congress to offer similar help to other cash-strapped pension funds.

After GOP leaders made it clear the $3 billion, 10-year bill was unlikely to pass, supporters said they would agree to a one-year extension of health care benefits.

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Q. What does President-elect Donald Trump say?

A. Trump, a self-styled coal champion, has remained mum on the bill for months. His staff has declined repeated requests by The Associated Press to comment, and he has not responded to a letter from three Senate Democrats urging him to get involved.

Still, the bill's supporters say they think Trump is sympathetic, noting that he easily won West Virginia and other coal-producing states in last month's election. Trump has vowed to revive the coal industry and has joined other Republicans in criticizing President Barack Obama for waging a "war on coal" through excessive regulations.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a leader of the effort to save the miners' benefits, said Trump is considered "very favorably" in coal country. Manchin is set to meet with Trump on Monday and is under consideration for energy secretary or some other position in the incoming Trump administration.

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Q. What happens next?

A. Manchin says he and other coal-state lawmakers will continue fighting for the retired miners and their families next year if they lose their current fight. Democrats "will carry the momentum...and win the fight in January," he said.

"We're just getting warmed up," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Friday on the Senate floor. "We're coming back week after week, month after month, to make sure these miners get their health care and their pensions."

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Q. What is the 1946 agreement cited by bill supporters?

A. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman brokered an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America to guarantee miners' lifetime health and retirement benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike by unionized workers. Manchin and others say their bill merely keeps the promise made in the 1946 agreement.

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Q. Doesn't politics play a role here?

A. Yes, inevitably politics plays a key role.

Three coal-state Democrats — Manchin, Casey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — are leading the fight to protect miners. All three are up for re-election in 2018 and all come from states that Trump won in the election amid strong support from white, working-class voters in coal and steel communities.

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Q. What about coal-state Republicans?

A. Several coal-state Republicans pushed for the bill before the November elections, including two who were re-elected: Ohio's Rob Portman and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Portman's staff says he has been meeting with GOP leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and McConnell, but was unable to persuade them to approve a full-year extension.

Toomey has declined to comment and his staff has not responded to inquiries by the AP.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., criticized Portman and Toomey — although not by name — on the Senate floor. Noting that some returning senators had promised to take care of the problem after the elections, Menendez said: "Well, here we are."

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