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Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners

Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners
© Greg Nash

The Senate Finance Committee voted Wednesday to rescue the coal miners union's pension plan and avoid its likely insolvency by the end of the year.

The panel advanced a bill, known as the Miners Protection Act, that would transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal fund meant for cleaning abandoned mines to the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) multi-employer pension plan.

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Supporters of the bipartisan bill said it fulfills promises that the federal government has made to coal miners for decades.

But some Republicans warned that the bill would set a dangerous precedent in which Congress would be expected to bail out the more than 1,000 multi-employer pension plans at risk of insolvency.

If Congress doesn’t pass the legislation by the end of the year, some 20,000 coal miners and their families could also lose healthcare benefits that rely on the same funding mechanism as the pensions. The pensions of about 100,000 miners would be at risk in the following months.

The looming insolvency is due to the precipitous drop in demand for coal in recent years, leading many mining companies to file for bankruptcy and reducing the amount of money going into the pension fund.

The bill passed 18-8, with GOP Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line Bottom line MORE (Utah), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBarrett says she did not strike down ObamaCare in moot court case GOP Sen. Thom Tillis tests positive for coronavirus 22 GOP attorneys general urge Congress to confirm Barrett as Supreme Court justice MORE (Idaho), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP's campaign arm releases first ad targeting Bollier in Kansas The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden hit campaign trail in Florida National Republicans will spend to defend Kansas Senate seat MORE (Kan.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (N.C.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham wants to review ActBlue's source of small-dollar contributions GOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) voting with all Democrats in favor.

“Today, tens of thousands of mine workers and their families, including so many widows, are in serious danger of losing that lifeline, losing that security,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.

“These are hard-working people who come from communities where broken promises, bad policies and bankruptcies have hit like one wrecking ball after another for decades,” he said. “Congress, in my view, has an obligation to step in and make good on the promise that America made back in 1946.”

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowDemocratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask Healthcare, retirement security seen as top issues for older voters, lawmakers say Dems to focus on issues, not character, at Barrett hearings MORE (D-Mich.) said “there’s no question that we’re running out of time to prevent thousands of coal miners and their surviving spouses from losing their benefits.” But she pushed her colleagues to also take action to prevent the loss of benefits from other at-risk plans.

Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziBottom line Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection Cynthia Lummis wins GOP Senate primary in Wyoming MORE (R-Wyo.) acknowledged the poor state of the UMWA’s pension plan but blamed it on anti-coal policies of the Obama administration.

“The bill helps only some of the thousands of miners who are hurting because of the administration’s war on fossil fuels. They’d rather have their jobs back,” he said.

The Miners Protection Act, Enzi said, doesn’t solve the problem.

“Rather than addressing the thousands of underfunded pension plans, today, we’re considering one bill that helps one underfunded plan, and it does so at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer,” he said.

Toomey agreed with Enzi’s assessment of the administration’s anti-coal policies but supported the legislation nonetheless.

“The administration decided they wanted to put these people out of work,” he said. “They decided they wanted to bankrupt this industry. And sadly, they’ve been pretty successful so far.”

Toomey, who is running in one of the closest Senate races, had withheld support for the legislation until this month.

When his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, started to attack him out for not supporting the bill, he publicly endorsed it but said it was far from ideal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg MORE (R-Ky.) has also not publicly endorsed the legislation, though he has hinted that he would allow a vote on the Senate floor if the Finance Committee were to pass it.

Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyEnergy secretary says pipeline setbacks pose national security issue MLB, Congress play hardball in fight over minor leagues Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill MORE (R-W.Va.), sponsor of a similar bill in the House, said his chamber would easily pass the legislation if the Senate does.

“We’re going to be fine in the House,” McKinley said at a rally this month. “But we’ve got to get past the opposition in the Senate.”