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Manchin faces political blowback at home, but it may not last

He angered mining union leaders and progressives in the otherwise deep-red state

Manchin and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, left rear in blue shirt, in the Capitol on Oct. 3, 2017.
Manchin and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, left rear in blue shirt, in the Capitol on Oct. 3, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

​Sen. Joe Manchin III is already facing political blowback at home in West Virginia after delivering a potential knockout blow to President Joe Biden’s showpiece legislation — but it’s not clear he’ll suffer lasting damage.

The conservative Democrat on Sunday upended his party’s plan to pass a roughly $2.2 trillion collection of climate and social safety net measures. The bill includes benefits for West Virginians like health benefits for coal miners, tax incentives for fossil fuel industries to transition to cleaner alternatives, a multibillion-dollar water cleanup program and extension of the expanded child tax credit.

John Kilwein, chair of West Virginia University’s political science department, said he was surprised Manchin made such a strong statement of opposition. “He burned bridges in D.C. and I don’t know that he helped himself in West Virginia,” Kilwein said in an interview, noting conflicting polling on Mountain State voters’ sentiments on the big spending bill.

“We really have moved so far red that even for people who it would help there was opposition to it,” Kilwein said of the Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill. “But I don’t think it’s uniform.”

Manchin’s pledge to block the bill brought swift pushback from some West Virginians counting on parts of the legislation that would help the state and prompted the head of the United Mine Workers of America, a longtime political ally of the senator’s, to publicly urge him to reconsider his position.

Not only does Manchin’s opposition place at risk what experts have called the biggest climate legislation Congress has ever considered, but it threatens policies that might benefit his West Virginia constituents, including thousands of coal miners.

In a statement Monday, Cecil Roberts, the head of the UMWA, which endorsed Manchin in his 2018 Senate reelection campaign, said the union was “disappointed” in the senator’s opposition and pressed him to reconsider.

“We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities,” Roberts said.

Without indicating a change of heart by the senator on the spending bill, Manchin spokesman Sam Runyon said in an email Thursday morning that Manchin “has always been a strong advocate for the UMWA.”

“He will of course continue to work to shore up the black lung excise tax in the New Year to address the needs of our brave miners,” Runyon wrote.

The union declined to comment about any response its leadership may have received from Manchin’s office.

Central in Roberts’ criticism is a looming lapse in funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays benefits and provides insurance to coal miners who have pneumoconiosis, better known as “black lung” disease, and their beneficiaries. 

The fund, which the Labor Department manages, paid more than $149 million in benefits to 17,347 primary beneficiaries in the latest fiscal year, excluding dependents. The number of payouts has been dropping as miners age and die, and as the domestic coal industry shrinks.

Money for the fund comes from federal taxes on the extraction of mined coal — $1.10 per ton mined underground and $0.55 per ton from surface mining. Congress has extended those rates on a piecemeal basis, but they will lapse at midnight New Year’s Eve unless Congress votes to extend them. That seems unlikely. The Senate is scheduled to return Jan. 3 and the House is slated to come back a week later.

A four-year extension of the tax is in the Democrats’ bill. Now, Manchin’s objection has thrown the future of the trust fund’s payments into uncertainty.

“If this doesn’t pass, I’m hoping COVID doesn’t stop us from coming to see our senators because we don’t seem to be getting the need across through calls as well as we can face to face,” said Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association and a former miner who has black lung disease.

West Virginia’s share

More than half of the benefits paid through the trust fund for fiscal 2021 went to people in either Kentucky or West Virginia, federal records show. Kentuckians got about $39 million in benefits and West Virginians got roughly $38 million.

“There’s still a lot of folks who rely upon it,” said Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

A lapse in the excise tax won’t cut off benefits immediately, she said. But it would throw the future of the fund, already $4 billion in debt and drawing money from the Treasury Department, into doubt.

“It’s just going to put the cost on to the Treasury and on to the taxpayers,” said Shelton, based in Whitesburg, Ky. About 20 percent of miners show signs of black lung, and those in central Appalachia are “disproportionately affected,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

“Black lung beneficiaries could increase in the near term due to the rise in the occurrence of the disease in its most severe form,” the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog of Congress, found in a February 2020 report.

The disease slowly chokes its victims, Shelton said. “It gets worse over time and it suffocates you to death.”

Compounding the circumstances for coal miners in Appalachia is COVID-19, which has largely shut down a NIOSH program for black lung screening, Shelton said. Before the pandemic hit, NIOSH ran a mobile screening service. 

The agency recently canceled screenings it had scheduled in September for southern West Virginia, citing rising “transmission rates” of the virus.

Roberts raised the black lung tax lapse issue in his public plea to Manchin, saying “that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers.”

The legislation also includes $500 million in federal funding to help fossil-fuel dependent “energy and industrial transition communities,” including coal-centered areas, shift toward other economic options. That spending includes an extension of the federal production tax credit, or PTC, through 2026, giving special attention to communities that have seen nearby coal mines close after 1999 or coal-fired power stations close after 2009. It also wraps in elements of a labor-backed bill that protects the right of workers trying to organize a union.

Other provisions that could help West Virginia include $9 billion for lead pipe cleanup — intriguing in a state where health officials detected “elevated lead levels detected in the bloodstream of children” in July. And there’s an extension of a tax credit known as 48C that carves out a special category to help create jobs for “dislocated workers” who worked coal jobs.

Union priorities

The UMWA listed that credit and passage of the labor bill as top priorities this year.

Kilwein said coal workers in the state are warming to the idea their industry must change, adding that Manchin seems more focused on the coal and gas companies whose businesses the legislation might hurt.

“I think he’s more concerned about coal capital, not coal labor,” Kilwein said.

West Virginia progressive groups held a Zoom call Tuesday to express their disappointment in Manchin and tout the legislation’s potential benefits for the state.

They described communities that already were facing economic challenges before the pandemic hit, with young people seeking opportunities elsewhere.

They said the legislation would help provide much-needed economic growth and job creation in West Virginia.

Marissa Sanders works with the West Virginia Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Parents Network, an organization that provides support, advocacy and training for families caring for children who are not with their parents.

There’s a tremendous need in the state for childcare and paid family leave, she said.

“And certainly the child tax credit has been extremely helpful, especially for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren,” she said, referencing the tax credit expanded in the pandemic relief law Biden signed earlier this year.

The groups took exception to Manchin’s statements that his position reflects the will of his constituents. They said that ignores support for the measure from their groups and others.

Progressives have long felt they needed to support Manchin in order to prevent Republicans from winning his Senate seat and the fact remains that he votes with Biden the overwhelming majority of the time, said Marybeth Beller, associate professor of political science at Marshall University.

Still, the fact that he seems to be the key figure blocking the core of their agenda is ramping up frustration with him. Whether he faces a primary challenger will depend on Democrats’ ability to identify a candidate viable in the general election.

“If they can find that person, then Manchin’s gone,” Beller said. “But that person hasn’t yet surfaced.”

As for the broader electorate, Beller noted Manchin is not up for reelection until 2024, adding that the economy and national political landscape could be sharply different then.

How his opposition to the legislation plays out will vary depending on voters’ level of information, she said, but there could be repercussions among those who are paying attention.

“As people find out that, for example, the black lung benefits could have been extended but there’s a huge gap and it’s all because of Senator Manchin, yes of course that’s going to hurt him,” Beller said. “Ideology’s one thing. Somebody’s pocketbook is very different.”  

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