WASHINGTON – Coal state lawmakers said Tuesday they’re cautiously optimistic Congress will preserve health care for 23,000 retired miners and their families before their benefits expire in four days.

If that doesn’t happen, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he’s leaving open the possibility of forcing a government shutdown over the issue. He has called denial of federal funds for the miners “inhumane.”

The retired miners are also asking for money to fund their United Mine Workers’ pensions, which are imperiled by liability payments growing beyond the union’s ability to make them.

Robert Steurer, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the Kentucky Republican is “on the same page” with miners in funding health care.

But, Steurer added, “the pension issue is a critical yet separate matter and should be addressed in the context of broader pension reform.”

The miners’ health benefits were temporarily funded by Congress in December through April 29.

Now, the clock is ticking again

The hope is that the Senate and House will include sufficient funds for the miners’ health care in the short-term budget needed to keep the government open through September, the end of the current fiscal year.

The problem dates to 70 years ago when President Harry Truman got the union and coal companies to agree to fund lifelong health care and pensions for the miners in return for ending a strike that threatened to cripple the nation’s power grid system.

With the decline of the coal industry, bankrupt coal companies and fewer miners are paying into the system while more and more miners draw benefits. The result is an insolvent union fund to cover the health care costs.

Congress has stepped in so far to fund the benefits, but with growing concern over government funding of a failed union health care and pension fund, the certainty of continuation remains up in the air.

“I guess I’d just wait for them to build my casket,” retired miner Ronald Pauley of West Virginia said during a recent trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for congressional funding. Pauley suffers from black lung cancer as do many other retirees.

Republican congressman Evan Jenkins of West Virginia said Congress owes Pauley and the other retired miners “peace of mind.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he’s committed to “a permanent fix. I don’t know where that will land. We’ll know by the end of the week how reasonable Republican leaders are.”

House Republican leaders indicate they prefer temporary funding to keep the health benefits going for perhaps another 20 months before tacking a long-lasting solution, including making good on the miners’ pension payments.

But even temporary fund is caught up in the battle over several other controversial and costly items proposed for the stopgap budget bill Congress must pass before midnight Saturday to avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., told PBS this week he wants a permanent solution to the coal miners dilemma, but “you don’t shut government down over this. Let’s be reasonable about it, and not give false hope.”

Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have opposed funding the union pensions, concerned it would set a precedent for bailing out other liability-burdened union benefit funds.

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