Steelworker health plan attached to trade bill

Democrats propose help with insurance

May 04, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the steel industry facing a financial crisis, prospects appear to be growing for taxpayers to absorb a share of the health care costs for laid-off or retired workers that the industry is struggling to pay.

Senate Democrats have included a one-year $400 million contribution to such costs as part of their price for supporting expanded trade negotiating authority for President Bush.

Their plan - championed by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, both Democrats - would provide 73 percent of the cost of buying health insurance for laid-off or retired steelworkers who lose their company-provided health coverage.

Under the plan, an estimated 100,000 workers or retirees would qualify for a year's worth of health coverage.

"That one-year bridge is very, very important," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. "Perhaps of any particular group of people, those most adversely affected by some of the events in international trade over the last several years are steelworkers."

The proposal for a one-year safety net might, in turn, help speed the approval of a House plan to ensure a longer-term federal contribution to the $12 billion cost of health care coverage for retired workers, sometimes called legacy costs.

"A few months ago, I would have said there was very little chance of federal help to these costs," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is among the scores of sponsors of the House bill. "Now, I think it looks a lot better."

`It is piracy'

Even so, sharp opposition remains, mainly from conservative Republicans who say it is unfair to force taxpayers - many of whom have no health coverage - to foot the bill for benefits promised to steelworkers by employers that now can't afford to pay.

"It is piracy on such a scale that, in my opinion, it is not worth paying - not even for trade [negotiating] authority," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.

Gramm told the Senate that he was not sure he could kill the steel proposal or the broader trade bill through a filibuster but that he would deploy all the delaying tactics at his disposal.

"Let me put it this way: We may adopt a bill that funds steel legacy costs as a tribute or bribery or ransom to get trade promotion authority, but it is not going to happen soon, and it is not going to happen easily," he said.

Plan holds appeal

Helping displaced steelworkers and retirees, though, holds great appeal in an election year, particularly among lawmakers from both parties who represent the major steel-producing states.

More than 30 steelmakers have filed for bankruptcy protection since late 1997, including Bethlehem Steel Corp., which employs about 3,500 workers at its Sparrows Point plant in Bal- timore County.

Bethlehem is paying health care costs for about 130,000 laid-off and retired employees and their dependents.

But a Brazilian steelmaker is negotiating with Bethlehem to form a joint venture to run the Baltimore County plant - a deal that could proceed, Cardin said, if Bethlehem receives some federal help with its health care costs.

Tariffs

Congressional advocates for the steel industry were encouraged this spring when Bush agreed to impose tariffs of up to 30 percent on some steel imports to protect U.S. companies. Those companies had argued that unfair foreign competition was threatening to destroy the domestic steel industry.

The White House also indicated that it might be willing to back federal aid for the steel retirees' costs after Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, offered to attach such a plan to an energy bill in return for Democratic votes in favor of opening Alaska's wildlife refuge to oil drilling.

That deal never materialized. But it prompted Mikulski and Rockefeller to seek to attach the steel proposal to the trade bill, which is more popular on Capitol Hill than the energy bill and is at least equally prized by the White House.

The trade bill has been approved by the House and is expected to come to a vote in the Senate before the Memorial Day recess. The differences between the two versions would then be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee.

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