W.Va. Lawmakers Want Health, Pension Fix for Coal Miners

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Three West Virginia lawmakers called on their colleagues Wednesday to support a measure to alleviate shortfalls for coal miners’ health and pension plans, but the bipartisan group faces some opposition from conservatives.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Rep. David McKinley (R) urged the Senate to act on a bill that would redirect some money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to support the United Mine Workers of America health and pension plan. The plan has become less viable as coal companies have gone bankrupt. The money in question currently goes to the U.S. Treasury, so the bill would cost the government between $2 billion to $3 billion, Capito said.

The federal government guarantees health and pension benefits for coal miners, and the lawmakers warned that if the UMW plan fails, it would take the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation down with it. That would likely cost taxpayers a lot more money.

Capito said the bill would prioritize health benefits over pension funds.

Manchin and Capito said at a press conference at the National Press Club that they expect a Senate Finance Committee vote on the bill next week. Neither senator is a member of the committee. They also said the House appears more likely to support the bill. The challenge is getting 60 senators on board, enough to overcome a filibuster.

Manchin said there are 46 Senate Democrats who support the measure and that the bill is essentially in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Capito said the bill has a chance of succeeding eventually, but she is “pessimistic” that it will happen in September or October.

Answering conservative critics, McKinley said the bill is “not a bailout” of the coal industry. It is a “reprogramming” of money that is already being paid to the Abandoned Mine Lands fund. Some conservatives have bristled at the fact that the money would be moved out of federal coffers and toward the health and pension plan of a specific union.

The Heritage Foundation has called the bill a bailout. It has also criticized the proposal for using industry-wide funds to contribute to one union’s health and pension plan. The conservative group says the funds that would be designated for coal miners is unrelated to the Abandoned Mine Land fund’s original purpose of funding environmental cleanup efforts at abandoned mines.

Capito acknowledged that some lawmakers will oppose the bill because of its cost. She and other supporters will make their case for the bill based on how badly coal miners need the help. If the cost of the bill is “the only thing you’re focused on, which some of our colleagues are, then you’re going to have a negative conception of this,” she said.

Manchin said taking care of the health and pension benefits of coal miners is a “moral responsibility.” They are some of “the most patriotic people in the country.”

All three members, including Manchin, the lone Democrat, panned the Obama administration for the role of the administration’s environmental regulations in undermining the coal industry. Manchin also emphasized the Democratic support for the bill in the Senate. Capito, meanwhile, praised Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is up for re-election, for his work on the bill.

Manchin also criticized the federal government’s so-called “war on coal,” saying the coal industry’s struggles have been “intentional and directed.” But he did so without mentioning President Obama or any administration official in particular.

“If the federal government won’t invest in the [clean coal] technology to get us to the level that they would like, then how do they expect us to meet that?” Manchin asked. “So their intention was to put us out of business. They’ve done a good job of that.”

Morning Consult