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Fight over coal miners' benefits creates dilemma for PA senators on key spending bill

WASHINGTON — A major spending bill moving through Congress this week presents a dilemma for Pennsylvania lawmakers and a vocal constituency: nearly 13,000 retired coal miners.

The Republican-drafted measure, which aims to avoid a government shutdown and keep the federal government funded through April 28, includes a host of policy riders intended to please both parties, including $170 million to help Flint, Mich. cope with its water crisis and a provision to speed the confirmation of president-elect Donald Trump's secretary of defense nominee, retired Gen. James Mattis.

It would ensure that when Trump takes office, the threat of a spending showdown would be pushed back for months.

But the measure does not include money to prop up a pension fund for retired coal miners, which coal-country lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), have pushed for. It also extends health benefits for miners for only four months, which unions and their allies say is insufficient.

Casey Wednesday morning called the bill "a profound betrayal of coal miners and their families in Pennsylvania and across the nation." Some 12,951 retirees in Pennsylvania could be affected, according to his office.

But Casey's statement — while strongly worded — did not say if he will vote against the bill. Doing so would essentially be a vote to block funding needed to keep the government running, something Democrats have repeatedly criticized Republicans for doing.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), for example, faced attacks during this year's reelection campaign for opposing a earlier spending bills because he wanted to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, and Casey will be on the ballot in two years' time.

A coalition of Democrats and Republicans from coal-mining states 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.

But some Republicans worry about the precedent of bailing out private workers.

Toomey, facing Democratic attacks in the heat of campaign season, said he would support the bill to ensure miners get their pensions. A spokeswoman on Wednesday declined to comment on whether he would oppose the spending bill given that the miners' pension provision was excluded.

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