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Delaware Sen. Coons to oppose key bill, citing fight on coal miners' benefits

WASHINGTON -- At least one Democrat from the greater Philadelphia region plans to oppose a critical government funding bill that has roiled coal country, including miners' groups in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) will vote "no" on a pending bill to fund the government through late April, a spokesman said Friday, citing its failure to include money to provide long-term health benefits to retired miners or a tax credit extension for clean energy projects.

Blocking the bill would risk a government shutdown -- something Democrats have hammered Republicans for when GOP lawmakers tried to stall similar measures while seeking their own policy gains, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act or slashing funding for Planned Parenthood.

Even with Coons' opposition, there do not appear to be enough "no" votes to stop the measure, though critics could stall the bill long enough to cause a brief shutdown over the weekend.

A handful of Democrats from coal-producing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are hoping to make a point in the fight over pension and health benefits for retired miners. That battle has become a sticking point over the bill to keep the government running, a measure that would also help smooth the early days of the Trump administration by avoiding any immediate budget crises.

Coal country lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), have railed against the bill because it extends retired miners' health benefits for only four months and includes no funding for miner pensions at risk because of coal's fading fortunes. Casey, however, has not said if he will vote against the bill when it comes up for a vote, likely Friday or over the weekend.

The clean energy tax credit, is "good for the environment, it lowers energy costs for both families and businesses, and it supports American manufacturing jobs like those at Delaware's Bloom Energy," Coons spokesman Sean Coit wrote in an email. "Second, the bill utterly fails to properly address the desperate needs of more than 16,000 miners and their families whose health care benefits will disappear in just a few short months without Congressional action."

Republican leaders have said they are willing to work on further extending the health benefits in the new year, though Democrats have balked at the uncertainty that would create.

"The difficulty here is they are having a hard time taking yes for an answer. I represent a lot of coal miners, I'm concerned about this issue. I had hoped we'd get a year. But we've got until the end of April to get at it again," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) told Politico Friday.

The miners' supporters point to a 1946 agreement in which the federal government pledged to back coal-miners' retirement benefits to avoid a strike. They say those benefits are in danger as coal companies go out of business, leaving workers with underfunded pension plans. They have pitched a bill that would extend and increase some customs fees to help cover the pensions and health coverage. About $300 million per year, on average, would go toward the benefits.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has said he supports that bill, but also has not said how he plans to vote on the broader spending plan, which includes a number of other major provisions both parties have sought, including aid to help Flint, Mich. and steps to speed the confirmation of retired Gen. James Mattis, president-elect Donald Trump's pick for defense secretary.

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