The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday night passed legislation to bolster failing pension funds, an issue that Democrats are hoping will help win over voters in the Midwest's union-heavy states for the 2020 presidential election.

The bill, known as the Butch Lewis Act, would bail out multi-employer pension plans that are on the verge of collapse. The measure would help pension plans sponsored by several employers and managed by a collective bargaining agreement by giving loans to insolvent plans so they can continue to distribute the promised retirement benefits. The legislation passed 264-169.

Cuyahoga Falls resident Mike Walden, a retired Teamster who has led the fight nationally to solve the union multi-employer pension crisis, said Thursday he is encouraged that 29 Republicans joined House Democrats in passing the bill. That was 19 more GOP members than he expected to vote in favor, he said.

“Our grass-roots movement has really pushed this forward,” he said.

The movement over the years has gained other allies, including the Pension Rights Center.

Now it is the Republican-controlled Senate’s turn to look at the House-passed bill and work on a legislative solution, Walden said from Washington, D.C.

“We need 60 votes, so we need 13 [Senate] Republicans,” Walden said. “They will start working together. The pressure is on.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not yet committed to addressing the bill this year.

Still, Walden said he remains hopeful that Senate members will work out a plan by the end of the year that solves the pension crisis and submit it to President Donald Trump. He said he has been told that Trump will sign a pension reform bill.

Pension reform could end up being included as part of a spending bill, he said.

“We’ve got to get over this party line stuff,” Walden said.

Walden is among tens of thousands of retired Teamsters and others in Ohio who face dramatic cuts of 50 to 70 percent in their monthly pensions by underfunded and financially faltering multi-employer plans. Nationally, the number is nearly 1.3 million retirees in danger of losing their pensions.

The legislation (H.R. 397) is a top priority for Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., who has been anxious to address pension security since he took over the committee this year. More than 10 percent of the 10 million beneficiaries of these plans won't receive their full benefits, according to the American Academy of Actuaries.

The bill also helps bolster Democrats' case as they look to win back Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — states Trump won in 2016 — in the 2020 presidential election.

By addressing pension insolvency, lawmakers are helping a group that easily draws sympathy: workers whose benefits are cut after they've retired.

"Who doesn't want to protect the pensions of those who have earned them?" said Karen Friedman, the policy director at the Pension Rights Center.

 

Beacon Journal staff writer Jim Mackinnon and Bloomberg contributed to this report.