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Seeking extended benefits for U.S. coal miners, Democrats mull government shutdown

“I want to shut her down,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said of the government Thursday.

By Doug G. Ware
Seeking extended benefits for U.S. coal miners, Democrats mull government shutdown
A construction worker is seen on a scaffolding tower Thursday as work continues on the west front of the U.S. Capitol building, in preparation for the presidential Inauguration next month. Democrats in the Senate are considering withholding votes on a government funding bill, which would trigger a temporary shutdown, unless Republicans concede to a greater expansion of benefits for retired U.S. coal miners. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Senate Democrats on Thursday said they're considering forcing a federal government shutdown this weekend, as a means to make sure Republicans deliver extended benefits for retired American coal miners -- protections that are set to expire in three weeks.

The Democrats could force the shutdown by refraining from voting on the next government funding bill. Current funding is set to run out at the end of Friday, and if a new round of cash isn't approved before then, the government will have no operating capital.

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That could put many federal offices out of business for the weekend, and potentially even longer.

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More than 12,000 retired miners and their families are facing the expiration of their health benefits on Jan. 1, and 10,000 more are in danger of losing the same coverage in the near future. Many miners also face possible cuts to retirement benefits -- due to cash-strapped coal companies in a rapidly-declining industry no longer being able to make regular pension contributions.

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The existing funding bill does address the miners' expiring benefits, extending them by another four months. But worried Democrats are using the occasion -- and President-elect Donald Trump's campaign promises to support American coal miners -- to get a better deal.

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Even if Republicans agree to the additional extension, it is still a short-term stopgap. Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill see a Miners Protection Act as the full, long-term solution. One version of such a bill was introduced, but not passed, in the Senate last year, and another was raised in the House.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., whose state contains a vast mining industry, is one of the lawmakers leading the charge for long-term benefits. Trump won West Virginia in the election, largely on pledges to back the coal miners there and in other coal-heavy states like Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

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The senators mulling a shutdown say they want to make sure Trump keeps his promises -- and to send a message that it's the Democrats who are the party of the blue collar working class, not the GOP.

"We enjoy the way we live today because of the dedication and sacrifice of our coal miners," Manchin said Tuesday. "That is why we must pass [the] MPA now."

"I want to shut her down," he said of the government. "I mean this is ridiculous ... You can't throw 16,000 people out [of their coverage]."

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Even the state's GOP senator appears willing to go along with a shutdown. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., said she will oppose any stopgap that fails to address miners' long-term benefits.

A coal miner walks outside the entrance to the Gateway Eagle Mine in Pond Fork, West Virginia, on March 13. Thursday, Senate Democrats said they are mulling a temporary government shutdown in order to extend health benefits for retired U.S. coal miners by one year. Current benefits are set to expire Jan. 1, and the current proposed funding bill includes an extension of just four months. File Photo by Debbie Hill/ UPI

"While the short-term, four-month patch will prevent our miners from losing their health care benefits in just a few weeks, we have more work to do," she said earlier this week. "I will continue fighting until a long-term solution is reached."

The House voted Thursday 326-96 to pass the spending bill, H.R. 2028, that would keep the federal government running from Dec. 10 through April 28. Now, the Senate must also ratify the bill and get it autographed by Obama before the end of Friday to avoid a shutdown.

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"We're hopeful that we'll be able to get relief and be able to deliver a Christmas present to some of the most sympathetic working people in America," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Thursday.

In May, Trump unveiled his "America First" energy plan, which focuses on expanding U.S. fossil-fuel production, including coal. As part of the plan, Trump pledged to reopen an untold number of American coal mines -- a vow which, considering the unfavorable economics of the coal industry, he could fulfill only through a massive expansion of corporate welfare for mining companies.

Most Democrats panned Trump's energy policy, which they say will effectively trash the substantial regulatory progress Obama's government has made toward attaining lower carbon levels. On this occasion, though, they say supporting long-term benefits for retired miners is one of the best ways the incoming president and his party can directly support the industry.

Last month, Trump said he plans to address energy policy within his first 100 days.

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"I will lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars' worth of job-producing American energy reserves," he said.

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The U.S. coal mining industry has seen monumental declines over the last four decades -- mainly due to greater global desire to cut down atmosphere-warming carbon emissions, innovations in clean energy technology and a dwindling supply of coal in the United States.

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