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House passes funding for 9/11 first responders after public shaming from Jon Stewart

Now the pressure is on Senate Republicans.

Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart holds up the jacket of first responder Ray Pfeifer before testifying at a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee as it considers permanent authorization of the Victim Compensation Fund in Washington on Tuesday June 11, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

It appears Jon Stewart’s public shaming is working, yet again.

The House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly passed a bill guaranteeing funding for a program that helps cover medical care for 9/11 first responders, a move that comes in the wake of immense public outcry and emotional testimony from Stewart during a House hearing earlier this year.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to giving it a vote in August, following extensive pressure to do so.

“As soon as the House passes this bill, it should be on the floor of the Senate immediately as a standalone bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in June. “I am imploring, pleading, and even begging to Leader McConnell to put this bill on the floor as soon as it passes the House.”

“Nothing about our shared goal to provide for these heroes is remotely partisan. We will consider this important legislation soon,” McConnell said in a statement on Friday.

This bill, known as the Never Forget the Heroes Act, reauthorizes the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund until 2090. A program that first ran from 2001 to 2004 and then was reestablished in 2011, the Victim Compensation Fund is now running out of money, given the number of first responders who’ve gotten sick following their work after the attacks.

Possibly because of their exposure to chemicals and other hazardous conditions on 9/11, thousands of firefighters and EMTs have since been diagnosed with cancer and respiratory diseases. As Catherine Kim explained for Vox:

More than 32,000 [first responders] 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.

Many of those affected rely on the Victim Compensation Fund, which helps cover significant medical costs that are expected to continue. Right now, without further action from Congress, the program is only authorized through December 2020.

While funds to care for first responders who worked during 9/11 seems like a straightforward ask from Congress, approving the program has long faced roadblocks among lawmakers, predominantly from Republicans who are reluctant to dole out additional funds for government programs. As part of his campaign to get the law’s latest authorization passed, Stewart took aim at this resistance.

Jon Stewart has been central in raising awareness about the program. Republicans have chafed at the cost.

Stewart’s personal connection to the 9/11 attacks has translated to enduring political activism: He’s been central in raising awareness of the Victim Compensation Fund this time around as well as in 2011 when it was first reactivated.

In June, Stewart made headlines when he offered up impassioned testimony during a House hearing, criticizing lawmakers for their “shameful” indifference toward the issue. While his testimony prompted House lawmakers to rapidly approve a reauthorization of the fund in Committee, it also spurred a rather prickly back-and-forth between Stewart and McConnell, whom the comedian views as a longstanding obstacle to advancing this bill.

“In terms of getting the 9/11 bills passed, Mitch McConnell has been the white whale of this since 2010,” Stewart told Fox News in June. When the bill was being weighed by Congress almost a decade ago, Republicans cited concerns about adding to the deficit as their rationale for stalling it. According to an estimate provided by the Congressional Budget Office this week, the bill is expected to cost $10.2 billion over the next 10 years.

As Kim noted, McConnell shot back last month, saying 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.”

With McConnell promising to hold a vote on the bill and the legislation passing the House, the focus is once more on the majority leader.

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