WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 100,000 retired coal miners, future retirees and their families are encouraged about a breakthrough in congressional legislation to protect their pension and healthcare benefits.

U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin of West Virginia made the joint announcement of the Bi-Partisan American Miners Act of 2019 on Wednesday.

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U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“We’re going to be able to secure the pensions of 92,000 coal miners and protect the healthcare benefits of 15,000 miners and their families,” Manchin said on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is also on board which gives the legislation much more weight than previous efforts by Manchin and Capito alone.

“Having Senator McConnell actually support the bill is a great harbinger of what could come,” Capito said, also during a “Talkline” appearance.

McConnell, in his own statement, said he discussed with President Donald Trump earlier this week the importance of protecting coal miners’ pensions and benefits. He touted cooperation with Manchin and Capito.

“The startling number of orphaned miners in the drastically underfunded pension plan presents an urgent crisis for entire communities of miners, retirees, and their families,” McConnell stated.

The bill is structured to use surplus funds in the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Reclamation Fund to shore up the pensions of those UMWA retirees.

The plan also directs funds to save the healthcare of workers at Murray Energy after their company recently declared bankruptcy along with workers and retirees of now bankrupt Westmoreland and Mission Coal Companies.

Although the plan calls for pulling money from the AML funds, both Manchin and Capito stressed it would not be a shirking of regulatory responsibility toward cleanup in the coalfields.

“We are not going to jeopardize AML as far as not doing responsible obligations to restore the land. That work will continue, this is the surplus.” Manchin said.

The urgency of a solution to the fund was amplified by the recent bankruptcy of Murray Energy.

“We had 15,000 miners who were going to lose their healthcare because of Murray going down and that’s taken care of,” Manchin said.

Cecil Roberts

The development represented long-awaited news for United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, who released a statement expressing appreciation.

“With this one bill, the United States Senate has taken a giant, bipartisan step forward in keeping America’s promise to our coal miners and their families,” Roberts stated.

“I am greatly appreciative of the legislation filed today in the United States Senate, the Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019, sponsored by Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The bill has 12 original cosponsors, Senators Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, Senators Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Senators Dick Durbin (D) and Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, Senator Doug Jones (D-Al.) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.).

“This legislation will not only preserve the pensions for more than 92,000 current and future retirees, it will ensure that the health care of nearly 12,000 retirees who will lose that care as a result of the bankruptcy of Murray Energy, and 1,200 from Westmoreland Coal and Mission Coal, which went bankrupt last year. With this one bill, the United States Senate has taken a giant, bipartisan step forward in keeping America’s promise to our coal miners and their families.

“I am especially thankful for Leader McConnell’s support of this legislation. His voice on behalf of retired miners is critical, and I want to thank him on behalf of every retired miner in America. Senators Manchin and Capito have provided consistently strong leadership for years on this issue, and have never wavered in this struggle. Senator Brown, Senator Portman, Senator Casey, Senator Warner and Senator Kaine have been with us every step of the way.

“It has taken us more than nine years to get to this point. Let us get this legislation passed as soon possible, and finally provide some peace of mind to these retired American heroes.”

Both Manchin and Capito praised coal miners for showing up on the Capitol Hill month after month to push for an agreement.

The urgency of the move to save the miners’ pensions was also important because of the threat it posed to the larger federal PPG fund, which is where most insolvent pension funds wind up.

Manchin and Capito both reiterated the miners’ pension problems would have put the PPG fund in jeopardy and could have posed a threat to the collapse of pensions nationwide.

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U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)

Capito cautioned that there is still work to be done.

“We still have some hurdles here, obviously this is not a done deal, but the way this has been crafted is much more significant and it’s sort of the final answer,” she said.

The bill would have to both pass the Senate and U.S. House before going to President Trump for his signature.

West Virginia First District Congressman David McKinley, who has managed to get pension legislation moving through the House, praised the proposal Wednesday, thanking Capito and McConnell.