Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation on Wednesday pushed again for a vote on a bill to rescue the troubled United Mine Workers pension and health care program on the eve of what the union is promoting as a major march in Washington in support of the legislation.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., promoted the bipartisan effort during a morning event at the National Press Club, aimed at drumming up more news coverage of the crisis facing thousands of UMW retirees, widows and other family members.
“We can do this,” Manchin told reporters at the event, which included a phone-in option for coalfield news media. “We can fix it.”
Capito said she has been given “pretty good assurances” that the bill — with 10 Democratic and eight Republican co-sponsors — will be taken up next week by the Senate Finance Committee. Capito said she’s also talked several times about the legislation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who last year blocked a move to attach the UMW pension language to a broader government spending bill.
“We could pass it out of the House tomorrow,” McKinley said, “but we’re not going to do that if it’s just going to get stuck in the Senate again. We’re trying to avoid something that jams this and stops it.”
In June, Capito and Manchin secured an agreement from Senate leaders that Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would take up the bill in committee no later than Sept. 30.
Retired miners are facing uncertainty because a key UMW pension plan is severely underfunded because of losses during the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis and the downturn in the coal industry that has forced some major operators into bankruptcy court. If the plan becomes insolvent, the miners and their families face benefit cuts and the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. will assume billions of dollars in liabilities.
About 89,000 miners or family members currently receive pensions, and another 22,000 have vested in the plan but are not yet receiving pensions, said UMW spokesman Phil Smith.
Also in financial trouble are the health care benefits of about 22,000 miners who could see those benefits cut off by the end of the year because of coal industry bankruptcies.
UMW-backed legislation called the Miners Protection Act would allow the pensions and benefits to be funded through part of a transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that already flows through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned mine cleanup program and UMW benefit programs.
While the legislation has bipartisan support, it also faces serious questions — and downright opposition — from some powerful Republicans, including some from major coal-producing states.
Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, for example, represents the nation’s largest coal-producing state and has warned that the legislation is a slippery slope that would prompt calls for taxpayers to bail out other underfunded multi-employer pension plans like the UMW’s.
Thousands of miners and supporters are expected to gather today at the U.S. Capitol to call for passage of the legislation.
“We must send a message to Congress to keep America’s promise to thousands of retirees, spouses and dependents,” the union said in promoting the rally. “Retired miners are on the edge of losing everything they have worked for.”