The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to add billions of dollars to a fast-dwindling compensation fund for 9/11 workers who are now sick or dying – capping an emotional political debate over ongoing deaths linked to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The legislation, which was championed by gravely ill first responders and former “Daily Show” comedian Jon Stewart, will extend the compensation program for decades, at an estimated cost of $10.2 billion for the first decade.
It passed 97 to 2, drawing cheers and applause from first responders and their families in the Senate gallery.
The measure has already passed in the House, so it will now head to the White House for the president’s signature.
In urging passage of the bill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., noted that as lawmakers in Washington were preparing to vote, in New York the family of former NYPD detective Christopher Cranston was holding a memorial service for him. Cranston, who worked at Ground Zero and the New York City landfill where much of the World Trade Center debris was examined, died Saturday of cancer.
“The eyes of the nation are looking at this chamber today to see if we finally will stand by our 9/11 heroes for the rest of their lives,” Gillibrand said. “This should never have been a fight, it should never have taken this long to pass this bill and make it permanent.”
The issue of prolonging the program became an urgent demand earlier this year, when the special counsel overseeing the fund warned that future payouts would be cut by as much as 70% due to a growing number of death and cancer claims draining the $7 billion that previous legislation had set aside for ailing victims.
Last month, Ground Zero workers and their families testified in an emotional hearing featuring former NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, who urged Congress not to close the door on others who would become sick after him.
Alvarez died weeks later, and lawmakers decided to add his name to the legislation. After testimony from Alvarez and Stewart, the House passed the measure overwhelmingly.
Stewart went on to attack Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for what he said was a long record of slow-walking legislation for 9/11 health issues. McConnell denied that he opposed the bill and issued a statement Tuesday morning urging support for the measure.
Stewart and other first responder activists met with lawmakers ahead of the vote Tuesday and were in the Senate gallery watching as votes were cast.
Even with McConnell’s support, the bill faced a temporary setback last week when two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah urged amendments that would require the government to cut spending elsewhere to pay for the program.
Those amendments lost by wide margins Tuesday before the vote on the overall legislation.
The fund’s first incarnation was created for those who were killed or injured in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when commercial airliners were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
That fund shut down in 2003, but in the decade that followed, doctors and scientists tracking the health of Ground Zero workers found links between that exposure and a host of illnesses, including lung disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer.
In 2010, Congress created a new version of the fund to provide health care and compensation for those who became sick after their work at the disaster sites, and for those who lived or worked close to those sites who were also exposed.
That legislation expired after five years, and it was renewed for another five years. The current version of the victim compensation fund is due to stop accepting claims in 2020, but the new bill would extend the program for seven decades – presumably long enough to cover everyone who was ever exposed to the toxic debris.
To date, the fund has paid about $5 billion to approximately 21,000 sick or dying claimants. About 700 payments were for deaths that happened long after the attacks. Officials have warned that at some point in the near future, the number of deaths caused by Ground Zero-linked illnesses will surpass the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Devlin Barrett, Kayla Epstein