WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans say they're close to unveiling a plan to address a $66 billion funding shortfall affecting coal miners' and other union pension plans, an issue Democrats see as advantageous politically and as a possible bargaining chip in trade talks with the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump championed manufacturing and coal industry jobs during his 2016 campaign, including in critical swing states he won like Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the 2020 campaign, Democrats have been touting "broken promises" to workers in those states and others, including more traditional GOP bastions like Kentucky where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection next year.
Senate Democrats hosted a group of about 150 retired coal miners, teamsters, steel and electrical workers and others this week to press their case that Republicans weren't doing anything to help.
Democrats sought unanimous consent to bring a pair of pension bills to the floor: The first would help 86,000 coal miners in danger of pension benefit cuts and also losing health care coverage; and the other is intended to rescue the wider universe of failing union pension plans and their more than 1 million participants with long term, low-interest loans and grants.
Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley blocked both efforts, saying his committee is "nearing the completion of a comprehensive proposal" that would also provide the targeted fix retired mineworkers are looking for.
The Iowa Republican also criticized the broader bill authored by Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, which is similar to legislation that passed the House in July with the help of 29 Republicans. In a floor speech Wednesday, Grassley cited a Congressional Budget Office analysis released last month that found most of the faltering plans covered under the legislation wouldn't be able to repay their loans, and would still become insolvent over the long term despite the upfront relief.
The CBO estimated it would cost $68 billion in the first decade. Grassley also said the measure would do nothing to overhaul the management of troubled pension plans.
Grassley later said Senate backers have "reached a point where we're going to start sitting down with members of the House and see how they respond to it." Grassley's timetable wasn't clear, however, and he acknowledged the work began under the leadership of former Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican from Utah, who couldn't advance a bipartisan solution under a special joint select committee formed to fix the pension problem.
"We are hopeful that we can come up with a sensible comprehensive plan ... the question is whether it's going to be truly bipartisan," said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Finance member working with Grassley. "That's the challenge."
However, there's been some discussion among Democrats about potential trade bait to entice the GOP to the table on pensions. A senior House Ways and Means Democrat, John B. Larson of Connecticut, said he thought GOP movement on the pension issue could persuade more Democrats to back the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, a top priority this year for the Trump administration as well as Grassley and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.