Retirement and health-care funds 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, according to the United Mine Workers of America.
"These folks spent their whole lives going underground and mining the coal that made this country what it is today. They energized this nation for decades and through today," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the UMW, which has pushed for the bill.
In 1946, President Harry S. Truman brokered an agreement to guarantee miners' lifetime health and retirement benefits, a move that averted a lengthy strike.
Thousands of retired miners and their supporters are expected to gather at the Capitol Thursday to push for the bill, which they describe as a life-saving measure that honors the pact made by the federal government. The bill would affect more than 30,000 retired miners in West Virginia, and tens of thousands more in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama.
Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois — both in tough re-elections in two months — back the legislation, but face resistance from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell, a staunch defender of his home state's coal industry, 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.
"There are hundreds of private-sector pension plans in critical, endangered or declining status throughout America today," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said earlier this year. "So I'm not sure how Congress would help the United Mine Workers and not the others. Where do we draw the line?"
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.
Portman calls the bill 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.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey, another endangered Republican, declined to comment, although his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, supports the bill.
"Our nation owes every single coal miner a debt of gratitude for staring down risks and helping meet our energy needs," McGinty said. She called on Congress to ensure "America's coal miners get the dignified, secure retirement they deserve."
A spokesman for McConnell said the senator "has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation's retirees, including coal miners."
McConnell "continues to believe this issue deserves an open, transparent debate through regular order," spokesman Robert Steurer said, noting that the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on the bill later this month.
At least nine Senate Republicans, including Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, support the bill, along with nearly all Senate Democrats.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said McConnell has blocked the bill "because he doesn't like the United Mine Workers union," which endorsed McConnell's Democratic opponent, Alison Grimes, in the 2014 election.
Don Stewart, another McConnell spokesman, denied that and said McConnell met with the union earlier this year and laid out criteria for the bill to be considered, including a hearing and vote by the Finance panel.
"There are a lot of different opinions. We'll see what kind of bill comes out of the committee," Stewart said.
Portman, who has lobbied McConnell on the issue, said he was pleased backers secured a vote in the Finance panel.
"We think it actually is going to save money over time," Portman told reporters. "Because if we don't provide for these coal miners now with some sort of an immediate stop-gap measure it's very possible you could see ... taxpayers generally having to step in and do some kind of a bailout" to prevent a collapse of the pension fund.
The pension measure is paid for in part through a fund used to clean up abandoned mines.