'The least we can do': House votes to extend fund for 9/11 workers

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday approved legislation to replenish a depleted federal fund to compensate emergency workers and others who became ill as a result of their work in the ruins of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, extending it for the lifetime of those who were at Sept. 11’s ground zero.

'The least we can do': House votes to extend fund for 9/11 workers

The bill, passed by a bipartisan 402-12 vote, would authorize $10.2 billion for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. It comes in the face of a large uptick in medical claims from people who worked on “the pile,” as the steaming heap of steel rubble was often called by those who labored there in the months after the attack in 2001. Many of them have since become gravely sick with cancer and other ailments.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who has led the charge to replenish the fund, said the bill fulfilled “a moral obligation” Congress has to the Sept. 11 emergency workers, who rushed to the rubble immediately after the attacks, and others who worked there in the months that followed. The cause was championed by comedian Jon Stewart and brought to an emotional peak by the death two weeks ago of Luis G. Alvarez, a former New York City detective and advocate for the emergency workers.

“It’s the least we can do as a grateful nation,” Maloney said. “They were there for us; we have to be there for them, and we have a double moral responsibility. Not only were they the veterans of the war on terror, they were told by their government that the site was safe, when it was not.”

Maloney has for months walked the halls of Congress in a black firefighter jacket with fluorescent yellow reflective stripes and her name emblazoned on the back, to draw attention to the bill and her drive to pass it. The jacket was given to her by emergency workers pushing for an extension of the fund, and she had said she would not take it off until that goal was achieved.

“The ceremonial removal,” she said Friday before a small crowd of reporters on the steps of the Capitol immediately following the vote, turning around to shrug the jacket off her shoulders.

House passage of the bill sends it to the Republican-led Senate, where the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said he would try to bring it up this month before the chamber adjourns for its summer recess.

“Nothing about our shared goal to provide for these heroes is remotely partisan,” McConnell said in a statement Friday that called the Sept. 11 emergency workers “the very definition of American heroes and patriots.”

“We will consider this important legislation soon,” he said.

The measure has drawn broad bipartisan backing this year after an outcry from victims and their families, a number of whom visited Capitol Hill last month along with Stewart to push for quick passage. But the fund has always encountered resistance from Senate Republicans, who sought to block it in 2011. McConnell’s statement last month that he would try to bring up the measure came only after advocates targeted him for holding it up, with Stewart calling the majority leader “an impediment.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California credited Stewart on Friday “for the spotlight that he put on it, to make it too hot to handle for the Senate not to take up the bill.”

“This was an overwhelming expression of bipartisan support for our brave first responders and their families,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Friday. “Sen. McConnell should put the House-passed bill on the Senate floor for a vote ASAP, and not let other Republicans push them to the back burner like the last time.”

Maloney said the compensation measure, while it has special resonance in New York, was in fact a matter of national concern because, by her calculations, those who worked at ground zero included people in 433 out of the 435 congressional districts. She said its passage should mark the last time that Sept. 11 workers and their advocates should have to go to Congress to plead for help.

“I hope deeply that none of them will ever have to come to Washington again,” Maloney said.

Time is of the essence for saving the fund. More than $5 billion of the $7.4 billion that was allocated in 2015 for the next five years has been spent; a special master administering it announced in February that payments would have to be cut in half for those who had already made claims, and by 70% for anyone who applied in the future. The legislation includes about $4 billion to cover existing claims.

“There are so many people in the prime of life who have been cut down from these 9/11 cancers, blood disorders, the various intestinal tract illnesses — it’s just been a horrible experience to go through for all of these people and their families,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y. “Hopefully, this will be the final struggle.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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