Miners flood Capitol asking Congress to save benefits, pensions

The bill – cosponsored by much of the Ohio congressional delegation, including the state’s two senators – has been stalled, but will face a Senate Finance Committee vote next week. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is running for re-election against former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, has become one of a handful of Republicans advocating for the bill. His support earned him the endorsement of the United Mine Workers earlier this year.

On Thursday, Portman stood in blazing D.C. heat, telling members of the United Mine Workers that he hoped that the bill would pass “like a torpedo” out of the finance committee.

“These benefits are absolutely required,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Afterward, he said, he was hopeful the bill would be attached to a “must-pass” bill – such as a bill keeping the federal government open – before Congress left in a few weeks.

In the crowd, Russ Phillips of Albany, Ohio said he was torn between Portman and Strickland in the Senate race.

Phillips, 61, spent 11 years in the mines before working for 31 years at a coal-fueled power plant that shut down last year. Because he only worked in the mines for about a decade, he has less to lose than many of his friends in pension, but he’d lose money nevertheless.

He said he was grateful to Portman for supporting the bill, which he said would save many of his friends from financial ruin. But “Ted’s a good man,” he said, saying Strickland has consistently supported the union on issues important to them.

“You can’t go wrong with either,” he said. “But I like Ted Strickland.”

Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, are both cosponsors of the Senate bill. Earlier Thursday, Brown blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for the measure stalling.

“These politicians you hear from – they’ve all got a good pension,” Brown said, saying they would retire with a $5,000 a month pension. “But they’re going to cheat mine workers out of $2,000 or $3,000 a month pension? That tells you a lot.”

The bill is needed in order to ensure that retirees’ coverage with the United Mine Workers of America remains solvent as some coal companies drop benefits after declaring for bankruptcy. The Mine Workers argue that the federal government is obliged to protect miners’ benefits.

If Congress doesn’t pass the bill, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., an agency which serves as the go-to for failed pension programs would have to cover the obligations. But that agency is already under strain, and Portman said he worried that it would not be able to survive taking on the miners’ plans.

On Thursday morning, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton announced that she was supporting the bill. Clinton has proposed a $30 billion package aimed at retraining coal miners to do other work as the need for coal lessens.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he would put coal miners back to work, but has not elaborated on how he would do so.

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