A deal fell to renew health care programs for first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack fell through this week, sending congressional negotiators scrambling to find a solution and members in both chambers and parties pointing fingers of blame.
According to lawmakers and aides familiar with negotiations, Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise involving a permanent reauthorization of the World Trade Center Health Program, which expired on Sept. 30, along with a five-year extension of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
They expected the deal to be incorporated in the highway bill, but found out on Monday that it would not be part of the transportation package set to come to the House floor Thursday.
"It’s a crisis and we’re having crisis meetings tomorrow,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., an original sponsor of the "James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act," told Roll Call Wednesday. "There was an agreement. We had a compromise."
Senate Democrats blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for the deal's collapse, a characterization McConnell's office rejected.
"There's still no final bill to object to," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told NBC News . "The questions of duration and pay-fors are still being worked out, but members on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the building are working on wrapping that up."
House Republicans and Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee blamed each other.
"We're willing to move a ... bill, fully offset," Energy and Commerce health subcommittee chairman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., told Roll Call on Wednesday. "[Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank] Pallone is not willing to offset. He doesn't think it needs to be paid for. That's the problem. We're ready to move it today, but Pallone is blocking it because he won't support the offsets."
Later Wednesday, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said he supported a permanent extension to the health care program and said it could be offset by requiring millionaires to pay for all of their Medicare premiums.
Pallone, D-N.J., suggested in a statement he was less concerned about offsets generally and more concerned about the specific offsets proposed by Republicans.
"The first responders who risked their lives to help others at Ground Zero showed us what real courage is. Now, 14 years later, House Republicans refuse to step up and ensure that they have the care and resources they need," he said in a statement to Roll Call. "Instead, they’re asking our country’s seniors and low-income families to foot the bill. Hardly a profile in courage if you ask me.”
The back and forth continues as lawmakers race against the clock. The most likely scenario for passing the measure is to insert it into the omnibus spending bill, which must be signed into law by Dec. 11 in order to avert a government shutdown. A House Democratic aide familiar with negotiations said McConnell was hoping to put it in that vehicle to entice Senate Democrats who might be opposed to the spending bill otherwise.
There's also a possibility the 9/11 health bill could be part of a deal to extend a series of tax breaks, but going that route would carry some risk.
"The problem with the tax extender bill is that bill may not pass," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Wednesday. He later added, "the budget bill has to pass, and it has to pass quickly."
There's momentum in negotiations among senior members of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Victim's Compensation Fund portion of the bill.
"We are close to a final deal with the sponsors of the original Zadroga Act in order to provide a fully-funded five year extension of the 9/11 VCF," said Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., in a statement to Roll Call. "Most of the major issues have been resolved, but we are continuing our talks with all stakeholders in order to have a final bill completed by the end of the year."
But none of that is enough for the 9/11 first responders, who arrived in Washington this week planning to take a victory lap. They camped outside of McConnell's personal office for much of the day Wednesday, according to John Feal, a demolition supervisor who has been leading the effort to reauthorize the health care programs.
Feal told Roll Call he met with McConnell's personal chief of staff, Brian McGuire, three times on Wednesday. The first meeting Wednesday morning including roughly 30 first responders, and Feal said it was in the "top five" of the most emotional meetings he's had on the issue.
"[McGuire] said the senator was working on it and that he supports the bill and he’s trying to get it done by the end of the year,” Feal said. “I basically called him a liar.”
McGuire did not provide specifics on whether McConnell supported a permanent extension of the program, Feal said, or if it would be incorporated into the omnibus.
As lawmakers continue discussions, first responders will once again gather on Capitol Hill to call on Congress to renew the program. A news conference on Thursday, originally planned to celebrate House passage of the highway bill containing the reauthorization, will now be used to exert pressure on lawmakers to act before the end of the year.
Feal said that despite the setback, he was still confident the programs would be renewed, as he was in 2010 when passing the original Zadroga bill appeared hopeless. But he also said that if the programs are not renewed, the responders will continue their push for the health care that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree they deserve.
"We’re going to let them know that we’re not going away,” Feal said.
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