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.


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 HatchBottom line The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Press: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! MORE (Utah), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Bottom line Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal MORE (Idaho), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 Lobbying world MORE (Kan.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers FDA unveils plan to ban menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to country: 'Turning peril into possibility' MORE (N.C.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanStrengthen CBP regulations to reduce opioid deaths House panel advances bipartisan retirement savings bill Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms 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 WydenBad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost Putting a price on privacy: Ending police data purchases Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states 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 StabenowThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - House GOP drama intensifies; BIden sets new vax goal Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Can Cheney defy the odds and survive again? 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 EnziThe unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality Lummis adopts 'laser eyes' meme touting Bitcoin 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 McConnellGOP braces for wild week with momentous vote GOP divided over expected Cheney ouster Sunday shows - White House COVID-19 response coordinator says US is 'turning the corner' 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 McKinleyThe Memo: Hunter Biden and the politics of addiction OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Native groups hope Haaland's historic confirmation comes with tribal wins | EPA asks court to nix Trump rule limiting GHG regs | Green group asks regulators to block use of utility customers' money for lobbying  Lawmakers press federal agencies on scope of SolarWinds attack 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.”