(Adds comments from coal miners, Senators Portman and Wyden and
more information on Senate Finance Committee vote)
By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, Sept 8 About 10,000 retired coal
miners and their families descended on the U.S. Congress on
Thursday to pressure lawmakers to pass stalled legislation that
would prevent 22,000 of them from losing their pension and
health benefits as soon as early 2017.
A bipartisan group of senators is trying to pass legislation
to ensure the retirees' coverage with the United Mine Workers of
America's retirement and healthcare funds, which are dwindling
as some coal companies drop benefits in their bankruptcy
The future of the coal industry and its workers has been an
issue in national politics. With just weeks to go before the
presidential and congressional elections in November, time for
passage of the bill is limited.
The union said the federal government was obligated to
ensure coal workers continue to get the benefits. The UMWA
pension currently supports about 120,000 former miners and their
"These miners put in decades of back-breaking work in
America's coal mines to energize our nation," UMWA International
President Cecil Roberts said.
But some Republican senators, including Senate Majority
Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have hesitated to support
the legislation, either because they do not want to be seen
bailing out unionized workers or because it does not address
what they say is President Barack Obama's regulatory "war" on
the coal industry.
Legislation backers say they are obligated to uphold a
guarantee made in 1946 by President Harry Truman to protect the
benefits to avert a strike.
Republican West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito said
on Wednesday that the payments were less than $600 a month.
"These aren't lavish pensions," she said. "This is food.
This is the trip to see the doctor."
If Congress fails to pass the Miners' Protection Act, the $5
billion federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, an agency that
backstops failed private-sector pension programs and is already
financially strained, would be responsible for the plans.
Mervn Click, a retired coal miner from Hueytown, Alabama,
who traveled more than 20 hours by bus for the rally, said his
benefits could cease by year's end.
"I don't know what I will do if it runs out," he said as he
stood under a tree facing the Capitol.
West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said 46
Democratic senators and at least eight Republicans backed the
bill. Three of the Republicans - Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey
of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois - are up for
reelection this November in tight races in coal-producing
Portman told the crowd he was confident the bill will pass
in the Senate Finance Committee, where it will be discussed on
"We hope it's a strong vote because that will get it to the
(Senate) floor like a torpedo," he said.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is the ranking
member of the Finance Committee, said he was "working both sides
of the aisle" to make sure the bill gets passed.
"Today it's mine workers; tomorrow it can be woodworkers,"
he said, referring to his state's logging industry.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who has
criticized bankrupt coal companies for "shirking" their
responsibility to pay healthcare benefits for retirees, voiced
support for the bill.
"I firmly believe that if you spent your life keeping the
lights on for our country, we can't leave you in the dark,"
Clinton said in a statement.
She has also proposed a $30 billion package to help coal
states adapt to a changing economy. That plan has been
overshadowed by a comment she made earlier this year that she
would put coal companies out of business.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly
pledged to put coal miners back to work but has not offered any
details. His campaign was unavailable for comment.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer told Reuters that the
issue "deserves an open, transparent debate through regular
Vera Newton, a member of the United Auto Workers'
Louisville, Kentucky, chapter joined her members at the rally in
solidarity with the coal workers.
"If they lose this fight, we're next," she said. "It's like
dominoes - if they lose their pension, other unions will
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)