Mitch McConnell says the country must not turn its back on the nation's coal miners — but that's exactly what those miners say the Republican Senate Majority Leader is doing.
For two years, McConnell has repeatedly blocked efforts to rescue a pension plan and health benefits for 13,000 retired union miners in his home state. Many face a slow death from black lung disease and other chronic ailments.
"We're dying like flies," said Billy Smith, a coal miner for 39 years who said McConnell's lack of support was difficult to understand, given all the ailments he sees among his fellow retirees in his local union.
Last week, McConnell told a group of business leaders in Pike County — eastern Kentucky's second-largest coal producer — that "the country must not turn its back on Kentucky coal miners." But he says the pension issue is more complicated than just "helping miners," since the proposed rescue would benefit only union miners while doing nothing for non-union workers who also have lost their jobs.
McConnell's office disputes that he has blocked the measure, with a spokesman saying McConnell believes it should come before the Senate "through regular order" and not attached to another bill. The bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee last month, but McConnell has yet to call it for a vote.
Workers like Joseph Holland, a retired union coal miner in Owensboro, said the federal government owes them their pensions and health benefits because of a promise former President Harry Truman made in the 1940s that ended a costly strike. Holland said he believes McConnell is punishing the United Mine Workers of America for endorsing his opponent during the 2014 U.S. Senate race, which McConnell won easily.
"He says he supports coal, but you know no evidence that he's supported the coal miner," Holland said. "It's very frustrating."
McConnell said the union's 2014 endorsement was "irrelevant" to his actions on the bill. The bill briefly came back to life last month when the Senate Finance Committee approved it, clearing the way for a Senate floor vote. But McConnell did not call it up prior to the October recess, meaning it won't be considered again until after the election, when McConnell said he hopes "we can find a way forward."
Meanwhile, the Patriot Voluntary Employee Beneficial Association notified about 12,500 retired union coal miners last week that their health benefits would cease on Dec. 31 without congressional action.
McConnell and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are enjoying immense popularity in coal communities after blaming the region's economic troubles on President Barack Obama's efforts to promote clean-energy alternatives. But Trump has remained silent on this bill, leaving the GOP leadership lukewarm at best on a measure many retired miners say is crucial to their well-being.
The bill is backed by Democrat Hillary Clinton , who has been pilloried for her comment about putting coal miners and coal companies out of business, even though she said it while stressing that the nation cannot abandon coal workers as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels.
"We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people," she said. "Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories."
McConnell, who won Pike County by 28 percentage points in 2014 after decades of Democratic dominance, described Democratic efforts to fight global warming as ideological and immoral.
"You talk about morality? I'll tell you what's immoral, to pursue ideological policies that will have little meaningful impact on the environment but have a very real and very negative impact on our economy, on jobs and on our way of life," McConnell said. "It's immoral to put more and more people out of work who only seek to make a decent living to provide for their families and provide a reliable source of energy for us all as their fathers and their fathers' fathers did before them."
Representatives for Trump, who has promised to bring coal jobs back despite dire economic forecasts, did not respond to requests for comment.
Both West Virginia senators have co-sponsored the pension and health plan; Republican Shelley Moore Capito says a Trump endorsement of the proposal wouldn't have much effect at this point, but Democrat Joe Manchin says an endorsement from the billionaire would mean a lot.
"I know that with Donald Trump being the nominee from the Republican Party, he could be very influential in asking other Republican senators to please verbally sign on and support the Miners Protection Act," said Manchin, who has endorsed Clinton. "That would be very, very helpful."