What’s behind McConnell’s support for coal miners’ pension bailout? Political self-preservation, most likely | Mark O’Keefe

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

In a startling development, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently dropped his longstanding opposition to bailing out pensions for 90,000 retired coal miners and widows, including 13,000 in Pennsylvania.

Earlier this month, McConnell joined a bipartisan group of senators, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in introducing a bill to transfer funds from the federal abandoned mine lands program to a United Mine Workers of America pension plan, which had been projected to go broke by 2022. The program is funded by payments from coal companies to restore and reclaim abandoned mines.

McConnell previously opposed the bailout, arguing that a comprehensive solution was needed for all pensions instead of one bailout for a targeted group of retirees. There was also some speculation that McConnell opposed the bill because he had never been supported politically by the UMW.

The UMW plan has been in trouble for years due to cutbacks in the number of miners over the years. It’s been estimated that about 10,000 active miners are paying into the fund, which supports approximately 90,000 retired miners.

The UMW argued that the bailout was necessary to fulfill a promise made by President Harry Truman in the aftermath of a strike settlement that the federal government would guarantee the pension funds.

They added that the pensions are small, averaging about $600 a month, and money from the abandoned mine fund could be used without taxpayers footing the bill.

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Since the bill was introduced in 2015, it drew support from a number of senators, including West Virginia U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelly Moore Capito, a Republican.

However, senators in western and southern states contended the bailout would do nothing to help miners in those regions, since most aren’t members of the United Mine Workers.

But the main problem was McConnell’s opposition to the bailout as he prevented the measure from even coming up for a vote.

“Sen. McConnell was the chief obstacle in moving forward,” said Phil Smith, communications and government affairs director for the UMW.

So, what’s the reason for McConnell’s change of heart?

In a press release, McConnell said, “A bipartisan group here in the Senate, led by Senators Capito, Manchin, and myself, took a major step toward addressing the emergency of underfunded pensions for thousands of miners, retirees, and their families.

“We introduced new legislation to expand that health care fix to include 13,000 more miners and protect the pensions of nearly 92,000 miners into the future.”

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One thing that had to draw McConnell’s attention was the recent bankruptcy filing by Murray Energy, the largest coal company in the country. Murray Energy and its subsidiaries have 7,000 employees and operate 17 active mines in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia.

The constant pressure of the UMW also had to be a factor. Just days before the switch, Smith said McConnell met with a group of retired Kentucky coal miners, who pleaded with him to change his mind.

“We kept trying to stress the importance of the bill to Sen. McConnell,” Smith said.

Smith praised the work of Manchin and Capitol in pressuring McConnell, adding that a change in the bill made at Manchin’s request probably made it more palatable for McConnell and other Republicans.

However, it’s quite possible that politics also played a role in McConnell’s decision.

About a week before McConnell’s switch, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Matt Benin in the race for governor. The outcome was somewhat of a surprise given that President Donald Trump won Kentucky by a 30 percent margin in 2016.

McConnell will be up for re-election in 2020.

“It’s hard to speculate on why Sen. McConnell changed his mind,” said Smith. “We’re just pleased that did it, and we certainly appreciate his support.”

Smith said that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done for the bill to become law. He pointed out that all the

Democrats in the Senate have expressed support for the measure, meaning they’ll only need the support of a handful of GOP senators for the bill to pass. He said they’re hoping to get the support of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa, who hasn’t said whether he opposes or supports the bill.

Smith said it will be important for the bill to pass by the end of 2019, noting that the looming impeachment hearing and the upcoming presidential election in 2020, could make it hard for anything of substance to be passed next year by Congress.

In the end, though, Smith said he expects the bill to pass, pointing out that McConnell, “usually gets what he wants.”

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly.