The Senate cleared a measure Tuesday that would extend a financial lifeline to thousands of victims suffering health problems from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
By the lopsided vote of 97-2, the Senate agreed to a House-passed bill 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 filed by Oct. 1, 2090.
Final action on the measure came after months of emotional lobbying by ailing first responders and their families, who recounted the effects of breathing toxic air for days and weeks after the attack on Manhattan’s Ground Zero, the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. The effort was aided by the celebrity star power of comedian and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who criticized Congress for showing little interest in the issue.
Stewart sat in the Senate gallery Tuesday to watch the vote with some of the first responders from the attack on New York, many of whom broke into applause once the outcome of the vote was clear. Lawmakers of both parties praised the measure as a long-overdue effort to give permanent peace of mind to victims suffering from cancer and other health problems.
“Let our heroes go home and live in peace, where they can breathe and finally exhale,” said New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a leading sponsor of the measure and a Democratic presidential hopeful.
The House passed the bill on a 402-12 vote July 12. The White House has not taken an official position on the measure, but lawmakers said they expect President Donald Trump to sign it.
Before the Senate’s final vote, two fiscal conservatives sought to rein in and pay for the program’s long-term costs without deepening future budget deficits. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the measure would cost nearly $10.2 billion in the coming decade and billions more in the decades after that.
The new legislation would extend the life of the fund through fiscal 2092 and ensure access to compensation for all eligible victims. The fund, first created 11 days after the 2001 attacks, has already been extended several times. The number of victims suffering health problems who become eligible for the fund keeps rising, in part because of the time lag involved in developing and diagnosing cancer.
“This bill appropriates unlimited funds for a virtually unlimited time period,” complained Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul who offered an amendment that he said would pay for the bill by making “very, very modest reductions” in mandatory programs while exempting Medicare, Social Security and veterans’ programs from any cuts. His amendment was defeated on a 22-77 vote.
And Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, offered an amendment aimed at capping the compensation fund’s long-term costs. His amendment would provide $10.2 billion in the first decade and another $10 billion through 2092. That amendment was shot down on a 32-66 vote.
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.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, offered his support for the measure and pledged speedy action in a private meeting June 25 with 9/11 first responders. The meeting came two weeks after Stewart made headlines by testifying for the bill at a House hearing that drew few lawmakers.
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 18,100 additional claims would be filed and paid after Oct. 1 this year.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, of New York, called the finale vote “a day of relief,” for thousands of victims after years of lobbying to ensure adequate compensation. “It became an exhausting struggle to get Congress to provide the care they needed but couldn’t afford,” Schumer said. “Those excuses, those delays, end today for good.”