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9/11 First Responders, Jon Stewart Push for Health Care Benefits

Jon Stewart attends a rally at the Capitol to urge Congress to extend healthcare benefits for 9/11 first responders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Keith LeBow maneuvered his blue walker around the Capitol's East Front Lawn Wednesday morning with an inhaler in his pocket. His slew of diseases stem from his work removing rubble and assisting with search, rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.  

The former New York City iron worker was one of roughly 100 first responders, including firefighters, construction workers and law enforcement officers who arrived on Capitol Hill along with former Comedy Central host Jon Stewart to push Congress to extend health benefits for 9/11 first responders, which are set to expire at the end of the month.  

"If it expires, I’m dead," LeBow said. "I’m dead. He’s dead. He’s dead," he added, pointing to his two friends nearby who were also part of the search and cleanup effort.  

"Because we got no way to pay for any of the treatments. We don’t have any way of paying to go to specialists," LeBow said. "We don’t have any way of paying for medications." Holding up his inhaler, he explained, "This alone is over $500 a month.”  

LeBow suffers from a number of diseases, including post traumatic stress disorder and asbestosis, which he contracted by breathing in toxic air around Ground Zero. He is one of more than 30,000 responders with known illnesses or injuries related to work after 9/11. More than 70,000 responders also participate in a health monitoring program.  

The World Trade Center Health Program was established by the James Zadroga Act, named for a New York City police officer who died due to 9/11-related illness. Congress approved the act in 2010, and Stewart helped push for Congress to take action, featuring first responders on his former program, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Stewart helped bring some star power to the lobbying effort Wednesday, launching a rally and attending a handful of meetings with top lawmakers.  

“Today on the Hill you may be exposed to possibly toxic levels of bullshit and arrogance," Stewart told the first responders before they left for their Hill meetings. "You’re strong men and women. These are conditions you may never have faced before so buckle your seat-belts and let’s get this done.”  

The World Trade Center Health Program expires on Sept. 30, and though programs can continue for another year, funds could run out before then. The other program created by the act, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, is also set to expire in 2016.  

So the first responders, along with Stewart, fanned out around the Capitol complex, meeting with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including top leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.  

Lawmkers pushing for the bill's reauthorization are looking to permanently extend the programs, which is a main point of disagreement as the reauthorization bill sits in committee in both chambers.  

"It seems to be, and it’s really only on the committee staff level, that there is an interest in a shorter bill and less money," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at a Wednesday news conference. "But the reality is, these diseases do not expire. Their health care should not expire.”  

To which Stewart sarcastically replied, "As you know, cancer has to be renewed every five years.”  

Gillibrand said the total cost of the bill is being determined by the Congressional Budget Office, but she said after the news conference she expects the bill to come to the Senate floor before the end of the year.  

She said she has spoken to McConnell about the legislation, but when asked if he supported bringing the bill to the floor, she responded, “He’s meeting with first responders today so that’s going to be a great opportunity for the first responders to meet with the majority leader.”  

As Gillibrand indicated, it does not appear likely Congress will address the bill before the Sept. 30 deadline. There are only a handful of legislative days left this month, and Congress will surely be preoccupied with averting a government shutdown.  

Senate leaders were asked about incorporating the bill into a continuing resolution at the end of the month to fund the government. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters any resolution "should" contain a reauthorization of the 9/11 first responders health care bill, but he stopped short of saying it was a necessary inclusion for Democratic support. McConnell noted that committees of jurisdiction were working on the bill, and did not say if it could be attached to the continuing resolution.  

For the lawmakers and first responders pushing for the bill, its passage is critical. And Gillibrand said there is no room to compromise on whether the program would be permanent.  

"No. it has to be permanent," she said. "The level of commitment these men and women have shown coming here is extraordinary. And they are coming to lobby Congress while they’re ill. Extremely, gravely ill. People are coming with their oxygen tanks. That shouldn’t have to happen.”  

LeBow guessed he had come to the Hill more than 30 times since 2008 to push for the health care program. He has seen many of his comrades die during that time. Over the past week, he said five first responders he knew had died. But he was back again on Wednesday and, as Stewart and others noted, the responders hoped they would not have to lobby lawmakers ever again.  

“God forbid any of these people that are standing behind me have to show up here one more time to ask individuals for their health care," Stewart said. "Insanity.”  

Emma Dumain and Niels Lensiewski contributed to this report. 

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