Steel-retiree health care fails in Senate

Amendment to assist former workers falls victim to delaying tactic

Measure attached to trade bill

Supporters withdraw plan after vote narrowly misses ending filibuster against it

May 22, 2002|By Kristine Henry and Karen Hosler | Kristine Henry and Karen Hosler,SUN STAFF

An amendment that would have provided emergency health insurance to certain steel retirees failed narrowly yesterday to overcome a Senate filibuster, but the vote garnered more support than expected even as the White House lobbied to kill the measure.

The amendment, attached to the trade bill that would give President Bush broadened authority to make trade agreements, would have provided a tax credit to cover 70 percent of the health insurance costs for steel retirees who lose their company-provided coverage. The cost was estimated to be about $177 million over 10 years.

Fifty-six senators voted to end the filibuster against the measure, but supporters fell shy of the 60 votes needed. Forty senators voted to continue the delaying tactic.

Supporters withdrew the amendment, but promised to rejoin the battle at another time.

"We won the vote, by winning the majority, but lost because of procedural obstacles," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was one of the amendment's lead sponsors with West Virginia Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV.

"Just because the vote is over doesn't mean the issue is over. In fact, the battle has just begun," the Maryland Democrat said.

Supporters declined to say exactly how the issue would be resurrected but indicated the measure would likely be added to future legislation. They also said that their long-term goal is to provide federal money to help relieve domestic steelmakers of the billions they owe to cover retiree health care and pensions.

The measure defeated yesterday would have helped about 125,000 retirees pay for one year of coverage. About 85,000 of them worked at Cleveland-based LTV Corp., which shut down in December. The new owner of LTV did not take on the steelmaker's so-called legacy costs of retiree pensions and health care coverage.

Retirees of Bethlehem Steel Corp., which is in Chapter 11, would not have immediately benefited from the measure because Bethlehem is still paying for health care coverage. But supporters said it would have been a safety measure for the 20,000 or so Baltimore-area retirees of the Sparrows Point plant, many of whom are worried that Bethlehem's faltering financial situation could leave them without benefits.

Many Republicans argued that it was unfair to burden taxpayers with the health-care costs of a small segment of society.

"Some people are trying to take trade promotion authority, which they know the president wants, and say, `Not unless you pay our ransom,' " said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican whip who led the filibuster against the amendment. "Why not for textile workers, why not for automobile workers - why don't we do this for airline workers, what about communications workers? We're going to single out one union and give them enormous benefits."

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said the amendment "creates a double standard for one class of folks, and another for everyone else."

Forty-eight Democrats voted in favor of the measure; Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted no and Zell Miller of Georgia did not vote. Seven Republicans, mostly from the rust belt, voted in favor of the amendment, including Richard Lugar of Indiana and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter. Independent James Jeffords of Vermont was also a supporter.

"Today's vote ... showed that a clear majority of the Senate is committed to protecting the health care benefits of steelworker retirees who have been victimized by unfair trade," said United Steelworkers of America President Leo W. Gerard. "Unfortunately, a cadre of Senate Republicans ... many of whom had no problem bailing out airlines and providing subsidies to giant farming conglomerates, couldn't bring themselves to help tens of thousands of retired steelworkers who are being forced to choose between paying for basic necessities and the staggering cost of prescription drugs."

A spokesman for Bethlehem said the measure did not apply directly to the company but that the steelmaker does support the concept of legacy cost relief in order to bring about industry consolidation.

Amid record steel imports that have helped drag down prices, and with companies owing millions of dollars in retiree costs, more than 30 U.S. steelmakers have filed for bankruptcy protection since late 1997, and 17 of those have liquidated.

"Retired workers helped lay the groundwork for current employees and we owe them; the right thing to do is protect their benefits," said Jim Strong, Baltimore's sub-district director for the United Steelworkers of America. "We're not giving up - we're not afraid of a good fight."

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