Miners plead for pension rescue

Miners plead for pension rescue
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Retired coal miners and their congressional allies are shifting into overdrive in their push for Congress to pass legislation shoring up their retirement benefits.

Coal-state lawmakers say their legislation, the Miners Protection Act, could get a Senate committee vote next week, but they’re keeping up the pressure on leadership and the Finance Committee.

Thousands of miners are coming to the Capitol on Thursday to lobby lawmakers on the bill. They say the federal government needs to honor a promise, made decades ago, to provide for the pension and healthcare benefits of retired miners.

At issue is the troubled pension plan managed by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which is expected to slide into insolvency within months unless Congress provides a bailout.

“This is something that’s desperately needed, and it has bipartisan support. And you wonder, if this legislation can’t pass, what can pass in the United States Congress?” said Cecil Roberts, the UMWA’s president.

“There are a number of reasons to do this, the main one being, of course, that people were promised this and the government should keep its promise.”

Roberts has been working on the legislation for the past four years with coal-state lawmakers like Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMorrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (D-W.Va.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Dems tell Trump: Don't meet with Putin one-on-one On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump walks back criticism of UK Brexit strategy | McConnell worries US in 'early stages' of trade war | US trade deficit with China hits new record Blueprint to Lower Drug Prices could offer a way forward in fight against mushrooming costs MORE (D-Ohio) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Sens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix On The Money: Trump backs off investment restrictions on China | McConnell opens door to tariff legislation | Supreme Court deals blow to public-sector unions, ruling against 'fair-share' fees MORE (R-Ohio) and Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyOvernight Energy: Koch backs bill opposing carbon taxes | Lawmakers look to Interior budget to block offshore drilling | EPA defends FOIA process Koch backs House measure opposing carbon taxes This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (D-W.Va.).

“This is a contract,” Manchin said Wednesday at a National Press Club event, referring to the 1946 federal agreement that he and allies of the miners say makes the government responsible for miners’ retirement.

“This is basically an agreement by the federal government and the United Mine Workers of America that we’re fulfilling to the people who gave us the country that we have.”

Supporters of the bill are focusing their energy on the Senate. McKinley said, “We can pass it out of the House tomorrow,” but only if the Senate is on board.

The legislation would move money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to the pension plan. That fund was set up to clean up mines that companies abandon, and much of the money has gone unused.

The UMWA plan was funded to about 94 percent of its
obligations as recently as 2008, but the crash of the coal industry has decimated it.

“Bad management and competition from gas have forced four of the five biggest coal companies in the United States to declare bankruptcy, and the ability of coal miners to receive their pensions and healthcare benefits is dependent on a healthy coal industry,” said Patrick McGinley, a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law.

“So with these enormous bankruptcies and the shedding of bankrupt coal companies’ liabilities through the reorganization process, there’s simply no money left to support the agreement that both the federal government and coal companies made.”

While the Miners Protection Act has bipartisan support, it faces opposition from some conservatives who fear that Congress will soon be expected to bail out more troubled pension plans.

Rachel Greszler, an analyst at Heritage Foundation, said the federal government never made the promise to miners that supporters of the bill claim.

“This is not about whether you support coal miners or not, or if you support a union or not,” she said. “It’s about the precedent you set. And if you do this because they provided a service to the country, what about every other worker who provided a service to the country?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Feehery: The long game MORE (R-Ky.), an outspoken advocate for coal, reportedly removed the pension bill from last year’s omnibus spending package at the last minute. His office has declined to comment on that report, from The Washington Post.

Brown said on the Senate floor earlier this year that McConnell’s opposition stemmed from the UMWA’s support for his election opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in 2014.

Robert Steurer, a spokesman for McConnell, disputed Brown’s conclusion and said the majority leader “has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s retirees, including coal miners,” but he believes “this issue deserves an open, transparent debate through regular order.”

Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs America must act to ensure qualified water workforce Overnight Health Care: Big win at Supreme Court for anti-abortion centers | HHS chief grilled on migrant children | Boom time for ObamaCare insurers? MORE (R-W.Va.) said they believe McConnell would be willing to bring the pension bill up for a Senate vote if it goes through “regular order.” They said Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Senate panel to vote Thursday on Trump's pick to lead IRS Romney: Trump's remarks at Putin summit 'disgraceful and detrimental to democratic principles' MORE (R-Utah) has agreed to hold a vote on the bill next week.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had been another coal-state holdout of the bill, but he came out in favor of it on Wednesday.

“While the Miners Protection Act is not perfect, I will vote in support of it in the Finance Committee later this month,” he said. “We must move this bipartisan measure forward quickly to solve an urgent problem.”

His election opponent this year, Democrat Katie McGinty, had been using the Miners Protection Act as a campaign wedge, holding a news conference Wednesday morning to criticize him for not supporting it.

“In Pat Toomey, we have a senator who will not stand up for his hardest-working constituents who, frankly, are being ripped off by their government right here and right now if this legislation doesn’t get passed and get passed right now,” she said.

Democrats see the race between Toomey and McGinty as a pickup opportunity that could shift control of the Senate.