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Jon Stewart Returns to Fight for 9/11 First Responder Health Care

Stewart speaks with Sen. Mark Kirk in the Senate subway on Thursday as he and New York first responders lobbied Congress to fully fund programs that provide health care and compensation to 9/11 first responders and survivors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Comedian Jon Stewart returned to Capitol Hill Thursday to urge lawmakers to renew health care programs firefighters, police officers, servicemen and women, and construction workers who responded to Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.  

The fate of the programs, known as the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victims Compensation Program, faced uncertainty this week when an apparent deal to renew the programs fell through, with both parties blaming each other. Lawmakers are working to find a solution, and the first responders called on Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to act.  

Stewart joined first responders at a news conference on the West Front on a chilly Thursday afternoon. The group included members of the New York delegation, who admonished fellow lawmakers for failing to act on the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act,which would have permanently renewed programs that assist thousands of first responders who became ill from the toxic chemicals at ground zero.  

"This is stupid and embarrassing, once again," said Stewart, who lobbied on Capitol Hill for the same cause in September. "Senator Mitch McConnell can rectify this immediately.”  

McConnell met with first responders earlier on Thursday, according to John Feal, a demolition supervisor and leader on the effort to reauthorize the health care programs. Feal said McConnell guaranteed a permanent reauthorization of the health care program, and a five-year extension for the VCF, would be incorporated in the must-pass government spending package that is facing a Dec. 11 deadline.  

“The Senate majority leader promised that we would go next week in the omnibus bill," Feal told the crowd at the news conference. He later told CQ Roll Call and the Associated Press that he and two other first responders met with McConnell for roughly 10 minutes, and then spent 25 minutes with his staff.  

A senior Senate Republican aide confirmed the meeting with McConnell, as well as his staff. The aide did not mention a guarantee, but noted that they discussed "possible paths forward."  

"The leader met with 9/11 first responders this morning, reiterated his support for completing action on the bill and gave them an update on the ongoing negotiations toward completing the bill," the aide said. "He also updated them on possible paths forward on the bill once it's complete."  

Feal met with McConnell's personal chief of staff three times on Wednesday. First responders camped outside of his office after news spread that an apparent deal fell through. Senate Democrats blamed McConnell, while one House Republican said there was a partisan disagreement over offsets in the Energy and Commerce Committee.  

"Mitch was upset," Kenny Specht, 47, a former New York City firefighter who was in the McConnell meeting Thursday, told Roll Call. "He said that we were never going to be on the transportation bill to begin with. That it was a rumor basically. But that’s not what we know.”  

“He said he’ll get it done," Specht said, "and we’ll see what happens."  

Stewart and his contingent of first responders made their way to the Capitol basement, camera crew in tow, after the news conference in time to ambush senators making their way to the Senate chamber for Thursday's vote-a-rama.  

The group remained there until Capitol Police told them to continue on their way.  

Among the senators they talked to was Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a bill co-sponsor who assured them that well north of 66 senators would vote for a bill.  

Graham also huddled privately with Stewart near the Senate subway amid a chaotic scene playing out as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott passed by in opposite directions.