Updated 6:09 p.m. | The Senate will be taking up 9/11 victims compensation fund legislation this summer, and the bill should be expected to reach President Donald Trump’s desk.
That was the word from first responders and their supporters after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill.
Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol, John Feal, one of the leaders of the 9/11 first responders, said the group in attendance was pleased with their meeting with McConnell.
“Mitch McConnell made a commitment to the 9/11 community and my team leaders that he’s going to help us get a piece of legislation that’s going to be passed in July for an August vote in the Senate,” Feal said.
The Senate is scheduled to be in session on Aug. 1, meaning the 9/11 fund legislation could be among the last votes before recess, unless there is a decision to once again truncate the scheduled five-week break.
“This is, quite simply, the right thing to do. The 9/11 community needs and deserves our support and the quicker we get this bill passed, the better,” the three House members said in a statement. “We have a double moral obligation to these heroic men and women.”
News of the McConnell commitment came after legislation to help victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has crossed a threshold of support that is key to move ahead in the Senate, according to New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
A bipartisan group of 60 senators signed on to co-sponsor a reauthorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which would make the fund permanent. Sixty votes are needed in the Senate to invoke cloture, or end debate on a bill. Without 60 votes, a bill can’t move forward to final passage.
“We have the votes for this bill to pass as soon as it comes to the floor. I urge Senator McConnell to not stand in the way and commit to a standalone, up-or-down vote on this legislation as soon as it passes the House,” Gillibrand said in a statement Tuesday.
McConnell met with the group of first responders and their families to discuss health care needs the fund addresses. On the House side, Majority Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday his chamber would take up the bill before the August recess.
Congress created the fund 11 days after the attacks to help victims, while also shielding from liability the airlines whose planes were flown into the towers, the Pentagon and a field in southern Pennsylvania. The fund pays out different amounts based on a victim’s family size and expected lifetime earnings had he or she not died or been rendered unable to work.
It operated for three years, then went dormant until 2011 when an outcry from victims prompted Congress to reopen it. The fund was reauthorized again in 2015.
The number of victims requesting compensation has exploded in recent years as more first responders have gotten sick, believing their ailments are linked to toxins created when the World Trade Center towers fell and from the cleanup at the Pentagon.
The fund received a record number of requests in 2018 and is on pace to eclipse that record this year. More than $5 billion of the $7.38 billion reserve has already been depleted. Fund officials began slashing compensation by as much as 70 percent in February in anticipation of a shortfall.
“Our 9/11 first responders are sick, they are dying, and they have already had to spend too much of their precious time traveling to Washington and fighting to convince members of Congress that making the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent is the right thing to do,” said Gillibrand. “We owe this to our heroes, and we should not force them to wait until the last minute.”
In recent weeks, comedian Jon Stewart gave emotional testimony to a House committee urging reauthorization of the program and used his fame and platform to pressure lawmakers to move quickly.
Emily Kopp and David Lerman contributed to this report.