This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin pledged Wednesday to block all legislation until pensions and health benefits are secured for coal miners. 

Manchin said no legislation will pass the Senate until he is assured that coal miners’ benefits will be in the spending bill used to fund the federal government.

The Bipartisan American Miners Act would permanently secure pensions for about 82,000 coal miners who could lose their retirement benefits by sometime next year without congressional action.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Manchin said miners can’t wait another year for congressional action. 

“We can give them that peace of mind today and no legislative business will pass without coal miners first,” Manchin said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill with Manchin and other Ohio Valley lawmakers to shore up those benefits. McConnell had blocked earlier Senate action on miners’ pensions. For example, in 2017 McConnell introduced his own bill to provide for miners’ health benefits without dealing with pensions. McConnell did not immediately return a request for comment. 

The miner’s pension plan was weakened by a series of coal industry bankruptcies.  

Murray Energy of Ohio was the last major employer contributing to the fund before its bankruptcy declaration in October. In its bankruptcy filing, Murray reports more than $8 billion in obligations under various pension and benefit plans. 

A bankruptcy court will decide if the company can escape those obligations. Manchin said that uncertainty about pensions is a burden for miners and retirees. 

“Can you imagine being one of the coal miners trying to enjoy your holidays this year knowing you might wake up January 1st with no health care coverage and a reduction in your pensions?” he said.

The Bipartisan American Miners Act would transfer some money from interest accrued on the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund – which is used to clean up old mining sites – into the mine workers’ pension plan. It would not take money directly from the fund. 

An earlier version of this bill also included a provision to increase funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is sliding into billions of dollars of debt. That language is no longer in the legislation to shore up benefits for miners.

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