McConnell introduces bill to fund coal miner health plans

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell on Tuesday introduced legislation to maintain health benefits for retired union coal miners whose companies have declared bankruptcy in recent years.

McConnell was among those who successfully worked last year to provide a four-month extension of health benefits that protected 16,000 miners whose benefits would otherwise have been cut off on Jan. 1. Democrats made a major push as well, as the government neared a shutdown last December.

President-elect Donald Trump supports the effort to permanently address the issue, according to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who discussed the issue with Manchin last week. The problem dates to a government promise made in 1946 for lifetime health care and pension benefits for unionized miners and their families.

Later Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Manchin and his home-state Republican colleague, Shelley Moore Capito, reintroduced a broader measure that would not only address the health care shortfall but also the more expensive pension issue.

House Republicans have resisted the effort but Trump’s support greatly increases the odds for a permanent fix for the problem. Trump rolled up huge margins in coal country, including in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. He’s promised to revive the industry, which has languished from competition from new domestic sources of natural gas, much of it released by a technique called fracking.

McConnell and other advocates for the industry say President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted a “war on coal” with regulations such as new clean air and water standards.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman brokered an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America to guarantee miners’ lifetime health and retirement benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike by unionized workers. The health benefits are more pressing — and less costly — than the pension promise. There’s no solution in sight for the pensions shortfall.

“More than 25 coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy” during Obama’s tenure, McConnell said. “This means that there are fewer active workers available to pay into an expanding retirement pool, leaving health benefits in jeopardy for thousands of miner retirees.”

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