Senate leader pushes for extension of coal miner healthcare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he is pushing to extend expiring healthcare benefits for retired coal miners by including a provision in a spending bill Congress hopes to pass this week.

Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In a statement on the Senate floor, McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said that in conversations with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan he has insisted that the Continuing Resolution include “a provision to address that issue so these retirees don’t lose their healthcare benefit at the end of this year.”

The fate of the United Mine Workers’ health care and pension funds is up in the air as Congress weighs legislation to provide financial support for the soon-expiring benefits, which are at risk of default as coal companies grapple with bankruptcies.

Although the Senate Finance Committee in September passed a bill to provide funding for those benefits senior lawmakers are looking for ways to include the provision in the spending bill that has to be passed before existing government funding expires on Dec. 9.

Democratic Senators of coal-producing states - Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia - said they would block must-pass legislation until Congress takes action on the so-called Miners Protection Act.

“There’s going to be 16,500 retired miners that are losing their healthcare benefits. There will be another 4,000 the first of next year,” said Manchin on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We’re fighting for those people that we promised, that we believe in, that have powered this nation, that have given us the country we have and now we’re turning our backs on them,” Manchin said.

Manchin is due to meet with President-elect Donald Trump later this week to discuss a potential role in the Republican’s Cabinet.

Trump had repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to put coal miners back to work. His spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s views on protecting miners’ pensions and health care benefits.

Grassroots group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth plan to deliver a 10,000 signature petition to McConnell Tuesday to call on him to pass the Miners Protection Act, as well as RECLAIM, a bill that would offer financial support to help coal communities diversify their economies, before Congress leaves for recess.

Reporting By Richard Cowan and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bernard Orr