War on coal over, McConnell says, but war on Kentucky rages on

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, 12/21/2017.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, 12/21/2017. Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the Trump administration for ending the so-called “war on coal,” but acknowledged there was more work to be done there and in fighting Democrats’ “war on Kentucky.”

“There’s been a little (relief)” from the war on coal, the Kentucky Republican told McClatchy in an interview Thursday from his Capitol Hill office. “The new administrator of the (Environmental Protection Agency), I think, has been very good in stopping the war. It doesn’t immediately bring everything back.”

In October, McConnell accompanied EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Hazard, Ky., where Pruitt announced his agency would withdraw from President Barack Obama’s “Clean Power Plant” rule. Many argue this regulation, which limited greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, is one of many that have had an adverse effect on the state’s longstanding coal production economy.

“The war against coal is over,” Pruitt said in his announcement.

In a recent roundtable conversation with conservative activists and industry stakeholders at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House — which included representatives from the National Mining Institute and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity — Pruitt called Obama’s “war on coal” one of the previous president’s main objectives.

McConnell told McClatchy he agreed. “The war was conducted by the government against the coal industry,” the senator said. “There’s no question the war … is over. That does not automatically mean a massive return of the industry, but there have been some hopeful signs.”

But McConnell had another worry about his state’s Washington fortunes: He sees a separate “war on Kentucky” being waged by Congressional Democrats, which he pledged to win in due time.

He was referring to Democrats’ refusal to allow a provision to be included in the freshly-passed Republican tax bill that would have exempted local Berea College from a 1.4 percent tax on earnings of its billion-dollar endowment. The endowment is used to waive tuition for students who can’t afford college.

“It’s a little college in the foothills of Appalachia that started in 1855 by abolitionists who don’t have any money, and (students) get to go to school for nothing and they work their way through,” McConnell explained. “Berea got caught by one of the provisions in the tax bill that provides a tax on college endowments after a certain point.”

McConnell said he intervened on behalf of the institution.

“They don’t even charge tuition,” he said of Berea. “This isn’t Harvard or Princeton or Yale.”

He succeeded in securing an exemption. But at the eleventh hour, McConnell said, Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a Democrat for president in 2016, and top Senate Finance Committee Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon tried unsuccessfully to remove the exemption, saying it violated Senate budget rules.

“In the mad dash to provide tax breaks for their billionaire campaign contributors, our Republican colleagues forgot to comply with the rules of the Senate,” they said in a joint statement. “Instead of providing tax breaks to the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations, we need to rebuild the disappearing middle class.”

McConnell fired back.

“This was led by a man who campaigned last year that every student in America should have free college,” McConnell said of opposition from Sanders, who is also the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.

McConnell said he was looking out for Kentuckians on at least one other front: Health care.

Congress this year was not able to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Matt Bevin also was unable to dismantle much of the law inside the state despite campaigning on a promise to do so, with the Medicaid expansion program particularly hard to scrap.

Asked whether in retrospect he might have looked to Kentucky as a warning sign of just how hard it would be to undo Obamacare in Washington, McConnell said people were aware of the challenges across-the-board: “It’s not a state law so there was a limited amount they could have done at the state level.”

But the Republican tax bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday, includes a repeal of the Obamacare policy that fined individuals who declined to purchase health insurance.

“That important,” McConnell explained, “because these are people who are not eligible for subsidies and not on Medicaid.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain