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GOP-backed measure would let coal companies transfer cost of sick miners to US taxpayers

A coal miner shines his head lamp on coal transported on a conveyor belt after being sheared off the wall during longwall mining operations at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania.
Ty Wright | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A coal miner shines his head lamp on coal transported on a conveyor belt after being sheared off the wall during longwall mining operations at the Consol Energy Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania.

Profitable coal companies may get a bailout in the government spending bill that lawmakers are trying to pass next week, and it could place Congress at the brink of a shutdown.

Under a new measure being floated in the House, companies like Consol Energy would be able to shift their obligations to cover the health care costs of retired coal miners on to the federal government, which already pays for other retirees' coverage.

The measure, pushed by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), could jeopardize efforts to finalize a separate provision that would permanently fund health benefits for retired United Mine Workers. Those benefits, which pertain only to mine workers who worked for now-bankrupt companies, are set to expire in a matter of days. There remains a dispute over how to pay for a permanent fix. But the Murphy text, lawmakers warn, could complicate those already difficult negotiations as Congress tries to keep the government funded this week.

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"Consol is probably one of the premier coal companies we've ever had in West Virginia and I'm very appreciative of all they've done, all the good jobs they've provided," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told HuffPost on Thursday. "But this bill, the way it's been configured, the way it's been worked, is not a place for that right now because they still have a viable company, an ongoing company."

Manchin said the current measure to permanently fix health benefits for United Mine Workers and their widows is "truly a bill that protects orphans."

"These are people who were left behind, their companies went bankrupt, they left the system," he said. "There's no way to get any type of payment."

But if Murphy's language is attached to the current miner fix, Manchin warned, it would make Democrats and possibly a number of Republicans abandon ship.

"To do that at this time would not be advised at all," Manchin said. "I think the Senate is pretty much resolved in where we are and I think that's been transmitted to the House pretty clearly."

At the heart of the dispute is a promise the government made 70 years ago to protect the health care of United Mine Workers. Under the 1992 Coal Act, the government agreed to cover the cost of health care for United Mine Worker retirees and their widows. But the language only covers miners who retired before the fall of 1994, and stipulates that still-profitable coal companies have to pay the health care costs for their miners who retired after that date.

Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committees Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committees Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Murphy's push would change that. Currently, coal companies that remain afloat and by all appearances financially healthy are paying for roughly 20,000 retirees protected under the Coal Act. His measure would move those costs ― likely in the billions of dollars ― to the taxpayers.

The congressman confirmed to HuffPost that he is drafting language that would make it so Consol and other companies don't have to pay for the health coverage of their retirees even though they remain solvent. His text is expected to be included in the omnibus spending bill to fund the government that Congress will consider after first passing a short-term resolution to keep the government open this week.

Asked if it was just to help out Consol Energy, Murphy said his measure would be for "a number of coal companies" to ensure that "all of the things aren't placed on the shoulders of existing companies." The congressman said he's in talks with his colleagues and a lot of people in the mining industry about the language he's drafting.

Murphy spokeswoman Carly Atchison said in an email that he supports following through on the promise the government made to the United Mine Workers in 1946.

"However, he is also concerned that our active coal companies, who were burdened with legacy retiree healthcare obligations mandated by Congress, will not be able to sustain competitiveness over the long term," Atchison wrote. "That is why he is working on language to protect all of our coal miners by addressing the retiree healthcare needs of today while avoiding [a] crisis tomorrow by placing our active coal producers at a competitive disadvantage and push more coal companies into bankruptcy."

Consol Energy did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Murphy received $32,450 in contributions from the mining industry during his 2016 re-election campaign, and has received $353,039 from the industry over the course of his career in Congress, according to Open Secrets. Consol Energy and a number of its high-ranking employees appear to have contributed more than $70,000 to Murphy's campaigns during his time in the House.

The effort launched by Murphy and coal companies in the past 24 hours didn't sit well with the United Mine Workers of America, which has been working with Manchin and others in both chambers to get a permanent health benefits fix through Congress for years. The current language pulls from the bipartisan Miners Protection Act, authored by Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and a handful of other coal-state senators.

"Some elements of the coal industry have come in at the last minute to try to steal health care and pension funding from retirees," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "They have not gone through regular order like the Miners Protection Act has at the request of the Senate Majority Leader. Congress must decide if they want to save lives or pad tom lines."