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New Yorkers Look to Avoid More 9/11 'Collateral Damage'

Stewart, right, has been pressuring members of Congress like Sen. Lindsey Graham, left, to renew the first responders' health funding law. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

"I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning," Rep. Peter T. King said, worrying that Congress is turning its back on 9/11 first responders. The Long Island Republicans added his biggest fear is that those exposed to Ground Zero's horrors will be "collateral damage" because the expired Zadroga Act that funds their health care needs won't find a way onto any of the year-end tax or spending bills.  

But, even though the measure did not find its way into the highway bill conference report that cleared the Senate Thursday evening, he's optimistic. He said Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin has committed to reauthorizing the program and both the Energy and Commerce and Judiciary committee staffs have been looking for offsets to pay for it.  

"They wouldn't be working that seriously if the speaker didn't tell them to," King said in an interview Friday, adding he spoke with Ryan about the topic every day.  

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King spoke with Roll Call before members of Congress gathered Sunday at Ground Zero to push for a permanent bill.  

That contingent included both senators from New York, including the no. 3 Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer, who called the lapse a "black mark."  

"Even worse would be for members of Congress to head home to spend the holidays with their families while the families of our 9/11 heroes spend the holidays wondering if and when their health benefits will dry up," Schumer said. "We have to reauthorize the 9/11 Health Program, and make it permanent."  

King said he did not care which legislative vehicle the program hitches to before Christmas, as long as it makes on one of them, adding it was literally a "life and death" matter.

The first responders themselves will be watching closely as lawmakers negotiate potential offsets. John Feal, a demolition supervisor who has been a leading proponent of reauthorization, said they would be keeping in contact with their congressional allies over the next several days.
Feal was encouraged when he learned Thursday night that they had passed the two-thirds milestone of co-sponsors in the Senate when Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, agreed to sign on the bill.
"I think we're in a good place," Feal said in a phone interview Friday. "But anything's possible with these people so we have to stay on top of them."

King said the battle this time was different than when lawmakers from the tri-state area struggled to cajole colleagues into supporting emergency aid for relief from Superstorm Sandy back during the 2012 hurricane season.  

"This time the opposition is not there, but there is an indifference. It's out of sight, out of mind," said King.  

Perhaps that's why the aggressive lobbying push from first responders and their celebrity supporter, former Comedy Central host Jon Stewart, is so relevant, with members from other parts of the country needing an extra push to sign on to legislation that addresses a serious problem that could be far away from their own districts.  

But on Long Island, as is undoubtedly true in places like Bergen County, N.J., and New York City itself, the ongoing effects of the terrorist attack and the toxic mess left behind are all too familiar. King said it's hard to "go to 7-Eleven" without running into someone using an oxygen tank.  

Feal said first responders will likely return to the Hill to celebrate if the reauthorization is attached to the spending bill. But if negotiations go awry, he and a small team will head back to D.C.

He added that over the past 12 months, responders have met with every congressional office. The process to push Congress to renew these programs has been wearisome.
"Tired, battered, bruised, financially broke," Feal said. "But there's no place I'd rather be right now than with the best of the best the country has to offer."
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