WASHINGTON — An election-year bill to protect health care and pension benefits for about 120,000 retired coal miners and their families is one step closer to a vote in the full Senate.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the measure Wednesday, 18-8. Six Republicans, including Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, joined all 12 Democrats in endorsing the bill, which supporters say would save lives and honor a 70-year-old promise made by the federal government.
The measure has divided coal-state Republicans. Several endangered Republican incumbents support the bill, but GOP leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — are wary of bailing out unionized workers.
The bill would ensure that retired miners receive more than $250 million a year in benefits now at risk amid the coal industry’s steep decline and bankruptcies of several large companies. Without congressional intervention, some of the funds could run out of cash by next year, according to the United Mine Workers of America.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., hailed the finance panel vote.
“This is not and should not be a partisan issue,” said Capito, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other lawmakers.
The proposed Coal Miners Protection Act “will mean a real difference in the quality of life for tens of thousands of Americans just months from now, and I hope my colleagues will recognize the uncertain futures facing our miners,” Capito said.
She and Manchin attended the finance panel meeting, although neither serves on the committee.
Hatch said the fiscal outlook for the miners’ pension plan and its beneficiaries is “pretty bleak” and said the bipartisan bill represented months of hard work and compromise by both parties.
“I certainly don’t support everything in this package, though I will note that there are number of praiseworthy elements,” including the fact the bill is largely paid for through a fund used to clean up abandoned mines, Hatch said.
“Given that so many members … have a keen and intense interest in this matter, I want work with my colleagues, despite my own concerns, to move the bill forward to be considered and hopefully improved” on the Senate floor, Hatch said.
Manchin and other supporters noted that President Harry S. Truman brokered an agreement in 1946 to guarantee miners’ lifetime health and retirement benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., led opposition to the bill, saying he did not know why Congress should help the mine workers and not other private-sector pension funds.
A McConnell spokesman said Wednesday he had no scheduling announcements on the bill.