ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Without Congress's help, about 16,000 retired miners in seven states will lose their health care coverage by the end of the year. Congress is considering a proposal to temporarily extend these benefits, but two Senate Democrats say it's not enough. They want a more comprehensive plan. To get it, they say they will hold up a spending bill that must pass by tomorrow night to keep the government running. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Kara Lofton reports.
KARA LOFTON, BYLINE: Coal mining is dangerous work, but for many miners, a U.S.-backed promise of benefits and health care for life for you and your dependents made the risk worth it.
ROGER MERRIMAN: When we all started in the mines, we were promised health care for life, cradle to grave.
LOFTON: That's Roger Merriman in Fairmont, W. Va. He worked in the coal industry for 28 years. The promise he's talking about came about in the 1940s when the United Mine Workers of America and the United States government agreed that union miners who put in 20 or more years would get lifelong pension and health benefits.
Merriman's company, Patriot Coal, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, then again in 2015. Patriot is 1 of 6 major coal producers in the U.S. that have sought bankruptcy protection in the last few years, a process that often comes with trying to shed retiree benefits. Merriman says the looming possibility of losing health benefits is devastating.
MERRIMAN: We'll have to make a choice of going to the doctors and buying prescriptions or paying bills and eating. It's a life and death situation realistically, is what it is.
LOFTON: After the Patriot bankruptcy in 2012, the United Mine Workers of America negotiated a $400 million payment in bankruptcy court for retiree benefits. The UMWA's hope was that money would give Congress time to pass legislation that would protect the miners. But now those funds are about to run out.
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JOE MANCHIN: We're asking for a permanent fix. We have a pay-for for that permanent fix.
LOFTON: That's West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin during a floor speech Tuesday. Senate Democrats have been working for years to pass the Miners Protection Act, a bill that would move money from the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Fund into a fund that pays for the pension and health benefits.
But the bill has been met with resistance from Senate Republicans who are wary of bailing out unionized workers. In return, Manchin and colleague Sherrod Brown of Ohio are trying to block a key spending bill on the Senate floor until miners get their full health care and pension money.
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MANCHIN: So I haven't ever used this tactic before, but I feel so compelled that I said we're going to do whatever we can to keep this promise.
LOFTON: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed a temporary plan - tacking on $45 million to the continuing resolution in front of Congress this week which will fund the federal government and miners' health care through April 2017. The resolution does not include any money for pensions.
Democrats Joe Manchin and Sherrod Brown say they will hold out for a better deal as long as possible, even if it means a brief government shutdown. For NPR News, I'm Kara Lofton in Charleston, W. Va.
SHAPIRO: This story is part of a partnership with NPR, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News.
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