FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called on Congress again Thursday to pass legislation to ease federal regulations he says are forcing job cuts in the coal industry.
McConnell blamed those regulations for creating an economic depression in the Kentucky coalfields where some 4,000 miners lost their jobs last year.
The job losses have become a political issue in McConnell's bid for re-election to a sixth term. He blames President Barack Obama and Democratic allies in Congress for "declaring war on coal."
Kentucky's senior senator refocused attention on the issue by consolidating two bills that have been languishing in Congressional committees for months. He offered them up for a vote Thursday on the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid objected, but said he's willing to would work with McConnell to "try to figure out to get a vote on this" in the future.
The consolidated measure, which McConnell dubbed the Saving Coal Jobs Act, would streamline the permitting process for opening or expanding coal mines by setting deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to act. It also would block any new EPA carbon pollution mandates on coal-fired power plants.
McConnell said Kentucky is facing "a genuine emergency," pointing to news earlier this week that Virginia-based James River Coal is laying off an additional 525 miners in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
"The EPA's actions ignore the thousands of people in my home state of Kentucky who depend on the coal industry for their livelihoods," McConnell said. "In the year President Obama took office there were over 18,600 employed in the coal industry in my state. But as of September 2013, the number of persons employed at Kentucky coal mines is only 13,000."
McConnell pointed to the James River Coal job cuts as proof that the situation is growing worse and that unemployed miners are trying to figure out how to feed their families and pay their bills.
"Well, Kentucky coal miners have suffered far too much already," he declared.
Kentucky's impoverished Appalachian region, long dependent on the high paying mining jobs, has been struggling with lower demand for coal as utilities turn to cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity. The region lost about 4,000 mining jobs last year alone, according to data compiled by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
McConnell, who is seeking re-election, has been touting his efforts to help the coal industry on the campaign trail, insisting the Obama administration has declared a war on coal. His top Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is also lamenting the administration's policies on coal, declaring that she wouldn't "stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle class families."
The Grimes campaign said McConnell is pushing a "hollow bill" to try to win political support in the coalfields. In the statement, the Grimes campaign says McConnell "is scrambling to save the one job he cares about — his own."