The House voted Friday to extend a financial lifeline to thousands of victims suffering health problems from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
By the lopsided margin of 402-12, the House passed legislation that would effectively make permanent a special compensation fund for first-responders and other victims of the 2001 attacks, while providing however much money is needed to pay all eligible claims.
Action on the bill comes after a monthslong, emotional lobbying campaign by first-responders, their families and others, backed by the celebrity star power of former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. House leaders moved up the timing of the vote days after the death of former New York City Police Department detective Luis Alvarez, who developed cancer after cleaning up the debris at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.
The fund’s life already has been extended several times as more victims develop cancer and other ailments from environmental contaminants at the crash sites. Most of the health problems stem from breathing toxic air at Ground Zero, where the former twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
“We have asked so much of our responders and survivors,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district includes the World Trade Center site, said in floor debate. “It is time for us to give them the peace of mind they deserve.”
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that while he supports the bill, the Senate will have to find a way to pay for it before it becomes law. As currently written, the bill would violate the House’s pay-as-you-go rule, which requires offsetting new spending with cuts to other programs or tax increases.
The Senate is likely to take up the bill soon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after the House vote that the issue wasn’t “remotely partisan” and that the chamber will “consider this important legislation soon.”
McConnell offered his support for the measure in a private meeting June 25 with 9/11 first-responders. The meeting came two weeks after Stewart, accompanied by Alvarez, chastised Congress at a public hearing for not acting swiftly or giving the issue enough attention.
The White House has not taken an official position on the bill. President Donald Trump told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in June that “we’ll see what happens” with the measure on Capitol Hill.
A recurring reauthorization struggle
Congress created the fund 11 days after the 9/11 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 (PL 107-42). The fund pays out different amounts based on a victim’s expected lifetime earnings had the victim not died or been rendered unable to work, and the size of the victim’s family.
It operated for three years, then went dormant until 2011, when an outcry from victims prompted Congress to reopen it (PL 111-347). The fund was reauthorized again in 2015 (PL 114-113), but lawmakers only put $4.6 billion more into the fund, which ultimately wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.
The new legislation would extend the life of the fund through fiscal 2090, ensuring access to compensation for all eligible victims. The number of victims suffering health problems who become eligible for the fund keeps rising, in part because of the time lag involved in diagnosing and developing cancer.
About 410,000 people were exposed to contaminants at Ground Zero, including 90,000 first-responders, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which cited data from New York City’s World Trade Center Health Registry.
While 22,400 claimants already have received payments from the fund, an additional 17,600 remain under review. And the CBO projected that 18,100 more claims would be filed and paid after Oct. 1 this year.
Funding all the claims already in the pipeline and those still to be filed comes with a hefty price tag. The CBO estimated that the measure would cost nearly $10.2 billion in the coming decade, and billions more dollars in future years.
But cost concerns took a back seat to meeting the financial needs of victims, particularly the police and fire officials who rushed to the scene of the most horrific attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. Under current law, payouts from the fund are capped at $7.38 billion. As the number of claimants kept climbing, fund officials announced earlier this year they would have to reduce compensation to eligible claimants by as much as 70 percent until more money is made available.
Stewart, who attended a news conference Friday to hail the House passage, said the federal budget shouldn’t be balanced “on the backs of 9/11 victims and first-responders” when the need is pressing.
“Don’t be nuts here,” Stewart said. “This is necessary, it is urgent, and it is morally right. You have a program that works.”