Congress

Jon Stewart, advocates for 9/11 first responders are tired of visiting Congress

Crew renews call to authorize a permanent victims compensation fund

From left, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, comedian Jon Stewart, and Reps. Peter T. King and Jerrold Nadler participate in a news conference with 9/11 first responders, survivors and their families on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Jon Stewart and the New York City first responders pushing to make permanent the funding for 9/11 victim compensation are tired of making the trek to Capitol Hill.

“This is theater. We’re all down here today. There’s no reason to have dragged these people down here. There’s no reason to have to have these conversations,” Stewart said at a Monday news conference. “Bullshit. You know it, and I know it.”

The bipartisan lawmakers in attendance, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and almost all from the New York delegation, have set a goal of getting the compensation fund reauthorized for a full 70 years, aligning it with a companion health fund — and without a cap on the new spending.

“I want to say this very loud and clear to every senator, every member of this House: We must not force our 9/11 heroes to go through this same exhausting process again,” Gillibrand said. “We have to fully fund the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and make it permanent, and we must do it now.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer was at Monday’s announcement of the new legislation as well, but ever since Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton (when she resigned to become secretary of State), it’s been the junior senator leading the Senate effort on the 9/11 compensation programs.

Gillibrand is now a 2020 presidential hopeful, and the politics of the moment permeated Monday’s gathering.

Stewart, for instance, took pains to praise the work of the Justice Department under President Donald Trump in administering the compensation program.

“The claims are going faster and the awards are coming through,” the former “Daily Show” host said. (Stewart has been involved in advocating the program for years now.)

But the special master in charge of distributing money recently announced that the Victim Compensation Fund payments would be slashed by as much as 70 percent because of a shortfall.

“After completing this year’s reassessment, the Special Master determined that there is insufficient funding to pay all pending and projected claims under current VCF policies and procedures. As a result, the Special Master is required to implement changes to ensure that the VCF does not exceed its total funding,” the fund explained.

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House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the $7.5 billion provided under the most recent authorization was proving insufficient in part because the toxic pile of rubble in lower Manhattan after 9/11 has been formally linked to cancer.

“Many, many of the people who are sick and dying — or dead — would not have gotten sick had it not been for the federal government, and the mayor of the City of New York, Rudy Giuliani, telling everybody the air was safe to breathe, and they could work on the pile and don’t worry about it,” Nadler said.

The health care fund has already been authorized for what is functionally a permanent authorization, but the compensation fund has not. 

With a Democratic majority in the House, there’s every reason to expect the new legislation will advance as a standalone measure there. Nadler said Monday that the Judiciary Committee will consider it and the House will pass it independently.

Schumer, another native of New York City, said he would make sure senators have to vote.

“Everyone in the Senate should stand on notice, they’re going to have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Schumer said.

John Feal, one of the first responders who has become a leading advocate for the benefits through his Feal Good Foundation, made it sound like lawmakers who oppose this effort should prepare for political retaliation in 2020.

“We’re going to challenge every member of Congress and the Senate. We’re going to challenge their empathy, we’re going to challenge their humanity,” Feal said. “And if you’re not on board with that, then you’re going to get knocked the ... out,” he said, pausing rather than using a colorful epithet. 

While Schumer and Nadler avoided specifically criticizing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Stewart went right at the Kentucky Republican, who is up for re-election in 2020.

“I can assure you that he is an impediment to getting this done, so I would suggest bringing all measure of pressure,” Stewart said.  “I understand that there’s a certain measure of tact that goes along with politics, but just to be truthful: It’s a huge problem and the only problem.”

At least two GOP senators are backing the legislation, with Gillibrand thanking both Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Cory Gardner of Colorado for their support. But that would put the bill well short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster down the road.

Gardner and New York Rep. Peter T. King were the Republican lawmakers who spoke Monday, and Gardner’s story was perhaps the most unexpected.

“I had never had the opportunity to travel to New York to see the World Trade Centers as they were standing. I never saw them,” Gardner said. “My first time to New York City, I’ll never forget, was in mid-October after the towers had been hit.”

He spoke of how the first responders came to the aid of Coloradans who happened to be in New York City on the day of the attack.

“This is a sea to shining sea moment, a sea to shining sea promise, a sea to shining sea obligation,” Gardner said.

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