Retired coal miners wearing camouflage shirts were an unmistakable, recurring sight Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Yet to Kentucky’s senators, they may as well have blended in with the woodwork.
Sen. Rand Paul walked right past them in the hallway. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t even look up from the Senate floor as they sat in the gallery.
McConnell’s staff did meet with the miners Tuesday. They were once again pleading with Congress to save their health benefits.
Unless Congress enacts a fix this week, more than 22,000 will lose health care coverage next month, including 2,750 in the state McConnell and Paul, both Republicans, represent. In December, the miners got a last-minute four-month fix.
This time, the deadline is Friday at midnight for Congress to act.
McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he supported a permanent fix, one that would probably be part of the spending bill lawmakers must pass by Friday to keep most of the government funded through Sept. 30.
“It’s my hope that that will be included in the final package,” McConnell said. Paul, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, does not support a permanent fix.
The miners group that met with McConnell’s staff expressed confidence that lawmakers could reach a deal.
“We felt really good after we left the meeting,” said Steve Earle, vice president of the United Mine Workers of America District 12 in Madisonville, Kentucky.
But the miners were disappointed that the Kentucky senators wouldn’t meet with them. “It’s rather frustrating,” said Eddie Embry of Hartford, Kentucky, who’s been to Washington seven times to lobby lawmakers on the issue. “We’ve pounded the pavement pretty good.”
Embry said other coal state lawmakers had gone out of their way to greet the miners whenever they visited, including Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the two most outspoken Democrats who support the miners’ effort.
“He treats us like family,” Embry said of Manchin.
Embry also said that members of the House of Representatives from Kentucky were very supportive, including Republican Reps. James Comer and Andy Barr.
Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, said Senate rules prohibited senators from acknowledging or bringing attention to anyone seated in the gallery, though Manchin a few weeks ago had noted the presence of the miners in a floor speech on the health care issue.
“If you want to know the backbone of the United States of America, look up in the stands,” Manchin said April 5, pointing up at the gallery. “These are the United Mine Workers of America that made us the country we are today.”
Earle called it a “tragedy” that 25,000 miners had died of complications from black lung and other diseases related to coal mining in the five years since coal company bankruptcies had put their health benefits in jeopardy.
The union miners had been guaranteed lifetime health and pension benefits “from cradle to grave,” Earle said, as part of a system they paid into when they worked.
“We kept our end of the bargain,” he said. “We sacrificed life and limb to help build this country.”
The miners’ spouses and widows are eligible for the benefits, too.
Harry Higgerson, of Pinckneyville, Illinois, who worked for Peabody Energy for 37 years, said he and his wife depended on the health benefit to pay for medication and for doctor and hospital visits.
“We’re hoping for the best,” said Higgerson, who’s been to Washington three times. “We need it.”
Higgerson has the backing of both senators from Illinois, Democrats Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and two Republican lawmakers from southern Illinois, Reps. Mike Bost and Rodney Davis.
Kentucky once ranked as the nation’s leading coal producer and though the industry has declined sharply, it remains in the top five states. However, there are no active union miners left in the state.
Every member of the Kentucky delegation on Capitol Hill supports a permanent fix for the miners’ health care and pension benefits, except for two: Paul and Republican Rep. Thomas Massie.
Every member of the West Virginia delegation supports the effort, and except for Manchin, they’re all Republicans. West Virginia has about 8,500 retired miners whose benefits would expire Friday. Illinois has another 3,500.
Over the past year, the union has paid for transportation and lodging for thousands of retirees to come to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers, including a large rally in September.
“I don’t think I’ve missed a trip,” said Joseph Holland of Greenville, Kentucky, who worked for Peabody for 46 years.
Earle said he thought the effort would pay off.
“I feel confident we’re going to get something,” he said.