PIKEVILLE, Ky. - Mitch McConnell says the country must not turn its back on the nation's coal miners — but that's exactly what those miners say McConnell is doing.
For two years, the Senate Majority Leader 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," pointing out the proposal would only benefit union miners while doing nothing for non-union workers who have also lost their jobs.
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, fueled by a successful campaign to turn the region's economic troubles into an outlet of angst directed at President Barack Obama's energy policies. Yet, even as Democrat Hillary Clinton has backed the bill, Trump has remained silent, meaning the Republican party's top two officials are lukewarm at best on a measure many retired miners say is crucial to their well-being.
In his speech in Pike County, which McConnell won by 28 percentage points in 2014 after decades of Democratic dominance, the senator framed the fight against Democrats' energy policies in terms of right and wrong.
"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 defied economic forecasts by promising to bring coal jobs back, did not respond to requests for comment. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, where Trump has won over voters with a vigorous defence of the coal industry, said 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."
West Virginia Republicans, including bill co-sponsor Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, say a Trump endorsement of the plan wouldn't have much effect at this point.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-West Virginia, said Trump's stance on the issue would be significant if he won.
"If President-elect Trump were the individual, at that point in time, it would be particularly, I think, important for him to take a position on it and I would hope that it would be a supportive one," Jenkins said.
Mattise reported from Charleston, West Virginia.