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White House chief says Iron Range issues are urgent, but fixes are still fuzzy

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No silver bullet was found, and no possible solutions promised – but a top White House official heard from workers on Minnesota's Iron Range Tuesday and said he (and the president) understand how dire things are.

Denis McDonough, the Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, met with 70 or so people in Virginia Tuesday, in a two-hour meeting that was closed to reporters, MPR News reports.

McDonough is a Minnesota native – born in Stillwater, and a graduate of St. John's University, his White House bio says. He was dispatched to northern Minnesota to meet with community leaders, mining executives and workers about the economic problems in the region, caused mainly due to a slump in steel prices.

Nearly 2,000 workers have been permanently or temporarily laid off from their jobs, and at least seven of Minnesota’s 11 major mining operations have idled (or plan to do so soon).

What happened at the meeting

While the meeting was closed to the press, the people who took part expressed optimism.

The Mesabi Daily News reports Dan Hill, a steelworker with Local 6860, said before the meeting "there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Now I feel that light has been relit."

Sen. Al Franken, who was at the meeting with fellow Sen. Amy Kobuchar, called it a "very powerful" meeting, the Daily News reports.

There weren't necessarily answers however – the Star Tribune notes he made "no firm commitments," adding some of the broader issues aren't something the White House has control over.

But while speaking to the press, McDonough underscored that his presence shows the White House is aware of what's going on, according to

" target="_blank">a tweet from U.S. Steel.

Also at the meeting were Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (a DFLer whose son works for Minntac), House Speaker Kurt Daudt (the only Republican elected official there, the Star Tribune says), Gov. Mark Dayton, and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (who represents Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District).

Why is the steel industry struggling?

The price of steel has fallen dramatically recently – and many people (including Klobuchar, Franken, Nolan and Dayton) blame it at least partially on other countries.

Countries such as China and India have been accused of illegally dumping cheap, foreign-made steel, and it's ended up in the U.S. – meaning there's less of a demand for steel made by companies here in the states.

The New York Times explored the problem in-depth in this article.

What's been proposed to help fix it?

Dayton has asked for a legislative special session, partly to help mine workers who could soon run out of unemployment benefits – but despite a meeting last week, no agreement had been reached.

Nolan meanwhile, whose district covers the Iron Range, has argued for a five-year ban on bringing in foreign-produced steel as a way to help the U.S. steel industry. He also says the federal government hasn't been tough enough when trying to stop the incoming illegal foreign steel.

Klobuchar and Franken introduced a bill last monththat would give the federal government the authority to act more quickly to enforce trade laws. Some elected officials also want the Obama administration to add a high tariff to imported foreign steel, the Mesabi Daily News writes.

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