First responders who fell ill after working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks might seem like a universally sympathetic group.
But paying into the fund that helps them has a long, bitter history in Congress, which was rekindled in Wednesday’s arguments on the Senate floor.
The fate of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which pays out claims for deaths and illnesses related to the attack, remains uncertain because of two Republican senators — Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) — even though the House overwhelmingly voted to pass the bill last week.
When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tried to get the Senate to unanimously pass the bill on Wednesday, Paul blocked her request, citing budget concerns. The Congressional Budget Office has placed a $10.2 billion price tag on the bill over 10 years.
“It has long been my feeling that we need to address our massive debt in the country,” he said, according to The Hill. “And therefore any new spending … should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable. We need to at the very least have this debate.”
Lee also placed a procedural hold on the bill.
Both senators immediately faced criticism from first responder activist groups — and the frustration they’re expressing is a decade-old wound that is just being re-highlighted after Jon Stewart went viral on June 11 for blasting Congress for their “callous indifference” toward 9/11 first responders. During a hearing on extending of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the former Daily Show host angrily addressed the empty committee seats in front of him.
“I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” Stewart said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”
A day after, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to pass the Never Forget the Heroes Act, which would extend the fund through 2090. The entire House of Representatives passed the bill 402-12 last week, putting the pressure on Senate Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has had a history of holding up the 9/11 bill, has committed to giving it a vote in August. Even with McConnell’s support, however, it doesn’t look like an easy road for the bill.
In the meantime, the fund is running out of money, payments to families of victims are getting smaller, and the fund is set to expire entirely next year if Congress doesn’t act.
Many 9/11 first responders suffer from cancer and respiratory diseases
The original September 11th Victim Compensation Fund operated from 2001 to 2004 to compensate those who suffered physical harm or the families of those who were killed due to the terrorist attacks in 2001.
But as first responders continued to fall sick and die years after the attacks, the fund was reactivated in 2011 as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. First responders with an illness that stemmed from their work during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks could receive compensation. The act was named after NYPD officer James Zadroga, who developed a respiratory disease after weeks of contact with the toxic chemicals around the attack site and died in 2006.
Zadroga’s illness isn’t an isolated case, according to the World Trade Center Health Program, a health care program funded through the Zadroga Act. Tens of thousands of first responders worked at ground zero, and more than 70,000 have enrolled in the program. More than 32,000 of them have developed diseases of the respiratory or digestive tracts, and 705 have died of those diseases. Cancer has also affected almost 9,000 first responders, and 600 have died.
At this rate, experts predict that the number of deaths from 9/11 diseases will outnumber the almost 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001.
But getting compensation for those victims, who could die decades later, took years — and is now under threat due to funding issues. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the Remember 9/11 Health Act in 2005, but it never came to a vote. When the bill was reintroduced, Senate Republicans balked at the idea of a permanent compensation fund with an initial price tag of $7.4 billion. The bill passed with $4.2 billion set aside for survivors and the requirement that it be reauthorized in 2015.
That renewal was also a political fight, but ultimately, the bill was extended for five years. So far, $5 billion of the $7.3 billion fund has been paid out to 21,000 claimants, and there are 190,000 additional claims to address, according to NPR. In an effort to make ends meet, significant reductions in awards — 70 percent less for claims made after February 2, 2019 — were announced in February.
First responders and their advocates are pushing for an extension that would guarantee funding through 2090. The bill has 323 co-sponsors in the House and 46 in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said publicly that Congress has to pass the extension as soon as possible. When McConnell was asked about the efforts to extend the fund a day after the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill, he said he was unaware of the matter but that he would deal with the matter “compassionately.”
That wasn’t enough for Jon Stewart.
Jon Stewart has been one of the 9/11 fund’s fiercest advocates
The 9/11 attacks have always been personal to Jon Stewart, who has been a New Yorker for most of his life. The comedian tearfully talked about his house’s view of the World Trade Center during the first Daily Show episode after the attacks.
He has been a fierce advocate for first responders ever since, and he’s been able to use his platform to turn around public policy. In December 2010, when it seemed like the Zadroga Act wasn’t going to pass after being struck down by Republicans earlier that month, Stewart devoted an entire episode of The Daily Show to it. He shamed Republicans as “the party that turned 9/11 into a catchphrase” and brought 9/11 first responders to speak on the show. Less than a week later, Congress passed the Zadroga Act, and Stewart’s 9/11 episode is credited as the tipping point for the issue.
Stewart never stopped fighting for first responders, and once again became a key figure during the reauthorization of the fund in 2015. The battle for funding had gotten particularly bitter when McConnell struck down a deal to include funding for an extension in a spending package. Democratic aides at the time reportedly accused McConnell of using the extension as political leverage to negotiate lifting a four-decade ban on oil exports — an account that McConnell denies.
First responders crashed McConnell’s office in protest, and Stewart relentlessly criticized the lawmaker on The Daily Show.
“What message does it send to our first responders if once we’re done as a nation with them helping us that we forget about them? That’s unacceptable,” Stewart said on the show, according to Mashable.
Eventually, the fund was extended for five years as part of a last-minute, year-end spending deal in 2015.
Now Stewart is trying to pressure the Senate into passing the bill again. On Fox News Sunday, he scoffed at McConnell for saying he’d be compassionate in his approach to the new extension.
”He has always held out until the last minute, and only then after intense lobbying and public shaming has he even deigned to move on it,” Stewart said.
McConnell, who shot back the next day, said that Congress has never failed to address the compensation fund and remarked of Stewart’s strong words, “I don’t know why he is all bent out of shape.”
Then on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Stewart criticized McConnell for using first responders as political pawns and called on him to actually meet with them as soon as possible.
“I’m bent out of shape for them,” Stewart said. “These are the first heroes and veterans and victims of the great trillions of dollars war on terror.”