FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, where proving your coal bonafides is a prerequisite for holding public office, the two major party candidates disagree over a bill that would rescue the pensions and health benefits of thousands of retired miners.
But the issue isn't coal, President Barack Obama or even the EPA. It's labor unions, adding another layer of partisan politics in a state that has been steadily turning red.
The bill, currently before the U.S. Senate, would use some of the $490 million each year that flows through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program to rescue the health benefits for union coal miners whose companies have gone out of business. It would also shore up a United Mine Workers of America pension fund that is on the brink of collapse following the 2008 recession.
The bill would preserve the health benefits of about 3,500 Kentucky coal miners, most who worked for Patriot Coal, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012. It would also protect the retirement benefits of about 9,800 retired Kentucky coal miners who were members of the United Mine Workers of America labor union.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who like many fellow Republicans has criticized Obama's energy policies as a "war on coal", does not support the bill in its current form. He says he supports the concept of the bill, but only if it provides relief for all coal miners, not just those who joined a labor union.
"If they will give the coal companies relief, and the nonunion workers relief as well as the union workers, I could be persuaded to be for it," Paul told The Associated Press in an interview. "For something to get passed, it has to please more people."
Paul is seeking re-election in November after ending his presidential campaign earlier this year. He faces Democrat Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky's second-largest city.
Gray said he if he were a senator he would vote for the bill because "you don't let the perfect get in the way of the good."
"I think it represents a positive, bipartisan step. I think it shows that at least some members of the Senate can cross party lines and work together. And that's what I promised I'd do," Gray said. "It's (Paul's) usual endless rhetoric that prevents anything good from being done."
The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday by a vote of 18-8, with six republicans joining all 12 Democrats to vote "yes."
Kentucky is one of the last southern states where Democrats still have measurable political power. Democrats have a 53-47 majority in the state House of Representatives, the last legislative chamber in the south the party controls. A key to their success has been the support of labor unions, who typically organize around opposing so-called "right-to-work" bills that Republicans leaders have supported.
In 2014, the United Mineworkers of America endorsed Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes over Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. McConnell would go on to win by 15 percentage points. Last year, McConnell's first as the majority leader, he blocked the proposal that would have rescued the UMWA's pension fund.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said the senator met with UMWA retirees earlier this month when the group held a rally at the U.S. Capitol. He said McConnell has discussed the issues with UMWA members "on multiple occasions."
"He will continue to work with his colleagues on the path forward," Steurer said.
The UMWA has been steadily losing influence in Kentucky amid the coal industry's decline. In 2015, the last union mine in Kentucky shut down, leaving the state for the first time in nearly 100 years with no active union miners. The UMWA appears to be sitting out the 2016 Senate race in Kentucky. They have not endorsed a candidate, and spokesman Phil Smith said he does not know if the group will make the pension bill a campaign issue.
Smith said the UMWA wants to help all retired and out-of-work coal miners, but he says this specific mechanism before the U.S. Senate is only available to union workers.
"It doesn't make any sense to us to not help (union workers)," Smith said. "That's like saying if we don't have enough lifeboats on a sinking ship, we're not going to let anybody on any lifeboats. That makes no sense."
Republicans have made unprecedented gains in eastern Kentucky, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, during Obama's administration by using the president's energy policies and public comments to fire up voters in an economically depressed region. They include proposals from the Obama administration that would limit new construction of coal-fired power plants and tighten emission standards.
"The real question for Jim Gray is, is he going to vote to get rid of the Clean Power Plant Act that Obama stuck on us," Paul said.
The EPA's Clean Power Plan rule has been temporarily blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gray said he agrees with the court's action, and he called Paul's criticism "a red herring."
"He's against this reform that protects coal miners just like he's against everything else," Gray said.