WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton is supporting a bill that would protect health-care and pension benefits for about 120,000 former coal miners and their families, an issue that has divided Senate Republicans.
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"I firmly believe that if you spent your life keeping the lights on for our country, we can't leave you in the dark," the Democratic presidential candidate said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.
Coal miners who have put their own health and safety at risk to provide the nation with affordable, reliable energy "are entitled to the benefits they have earned and the respect they deserve," said Clinton, who has faced a backlash from coal communities after she declared earlier this year that she was going to "to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Clinton's statement comes as thousands of retired miners and their supporters are expected to gather at the Capitol on Thursday to push for the bill, known as the Coal Miners Protection Act. Backers call it a life-saving measure that honors a 70-year-old promise made by the federal government.
The bill would affect retired miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama.
The measure has near-unanimous support from Democrats, but has divided coal-state Republicans. Several endangered incumbents support the bill, but GOP leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — are wary of bailing out unionized workers.
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Retirement and health-care funds run by the United Mine Workers of America currently support about 120,000 former miners and their families nationwide. But account balances have dwindled amid continued layoffs and bankruptcy filings as the coal industry struggles against competition from cheaper natural gas and tightening environmental regulations.
The bill would ensure that retired miners receive hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits now at risk amid the industry's steep decline. Without congressional intervention, some of the funds could run out of cash by next year, the union says.
Clinton has said she misspoke last spring as she tried to reassure voters that her policies would benefit out-of-work miners and other poor people in Appalachia affected by the coal industry's downturn.
"I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country," Clinton said at a CNN appearance in March. "Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?"
Clinton was touting a plan she released last year that would set aside $30 billion to protect the health benefits for coal miners and their families. But her quip about putting coal miners out of business gave Republicans a perfect soundbite to use against her in states like Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, where the party has made historic gains in coal communities in recent years by running against President Barack Obama's energy policies.
McConnell, a staunch defender of his home state's coal industry, has accused Obama and other Democrats of waging a "war on coal." He denounced Clinton's comments as "callous" and "wrong."
Still, McConnell blocked the pension measure last year and says he's not going to fast-track a plan that some Republicans warn amounts to a bailout.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he did not know why Congress should help the mine workers and not other private-sector pension funds.
"Where do we draw the line?" Enzi asked.
Wyoming is the nation's top coal producer — mainly from non-union plants — and Enzi said the bill would "do absolutely nothing for miners who are not members" of the UMW. Nearly 11,000 coal workers have lost jobs in the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the pension bill "wouldn't help put those folks back to work," Enzi said.
Sen Rob. Portman of Ohio, one of the endangered Republicans backing the bill, calls it a matter of fairness.
"These are people who not just power our country but power their communities," said Portman, who has been endorsed by the mine workers union as he faces a challenge from former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
GOP Sens. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kirk of Illinois also support the bill.
President Harry S. Truman brokered an agreement in 1946 to guarantee miners' lifetime health and retirement benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike.
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