The nation's most powerful senator's recent comment to a group of business leaders shows a tepid attitude towards a bill that could save coal miners' pension and health benefits.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told a group of Pike County business leaders that "the country must not turn its back on Kentucky coal miners." However, he said the Miner Protection Act is more complicated than merely "helping miners," as the legislation would only rescue the health and pension plans of union miners, while avoiding non-union workers who lost their jobs.
The United Mine Workers of America's director of Government Affairs said Wednesday that the 73,000-member union is not against helping non-members. "We are not opposed to helping non-union miners, but [the help] has to come from a different source," said Phil Smith.
McConnell's office said the senator is not blocking the measure, but believes the bill should come "through regular order" in the Senate, not attached to another piece of legislation.
"He never expressed support for the bill," said Smith.
Last month, the bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee, but McConnell has yet to schedule a floor vote. A companion bill in the House, the Coal Mine Healthcare and Pension Protection Act, is stalled in committee.
The Miners' Protection Act would make certain that union retirees who lost health care benefits after the bankruptcy or insolvency of an employer are eligible for the benefits. It would transfer funds yearly from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund until the benefit programs are financially sound.
But critics contend the the Abandoned Mine Land Fund will not cover the entire act's cost. The conservative Heritage Foundation, said "100 percent of all additional money granted by S1714 will come from taxpayers. The reclamation fund is insufficient to cover even the UMWA's existing unfunded health benefits, which have, since 2008, received more than $1 billion in federal taxpayer funds. All of the costs from S1714 — estimated in a Congressional Budget Office report to be $3.5 billion between 2017 and 2026 — will come from federal taxpayers."
Earlier this month, upwards of 12,500 retired union coal miners, including 5,000 in West Virginia, received notice from the Patriot Voluntary Employee Beneficial Association would cease providing health care benefits Dec. 31 without congressional action.
The bill has gained the attention of at least one presidential candidate. Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has been pilloried for her comment about putting coal miners and coal companies out of business, later has stressed that the nation cannot abandon coal workers as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels.
"We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people," she said. "Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories."
McConnell and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are enjoying immense popularity in coal communities after blaming the region's economic downturn on President Obama's efforts to promote clean-energy alternatives. But Trump has remained silent on this bill, leaving the GOP leadership lukewarm at best on a measure many retired miners say is crucial to their future.
Both West Virginia senators are co-sponsors of the bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Capito said the senator, "remains hopeful that the Miner’s Protection Act will come to the Senate floor before the end of the year and is doing everything she can to make that happen. With benefits set to lapse at year’s end, it’s urgent that Congress act before a new president comes into office in January.”
Mindful of Trump's huge popularity in the coalfields, Sen. Joe Manchin asked Trump to throw his support behind the bill. "I know that with Donald Trump being the nominee from the Republican Party, he could be very influential in asking other Republican senators to please verbally sign on and support the Miners Protection Act," said Manchin, who has endorsed Clinton. "That would be very, very helpful."
Trump's campaign, that promised to bring coal jobs back despite dire economic forecasts, did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press.
Smith, with the union, remained optimistic the bill will be come law. "There is ample time and ample opportunity" for the Act to make its way to Congress and to the President's desk for a signature. He predicted movement on the bill after Thanksgiving.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.