Congress took the first step Wednesday to finally remedy its slow-motion response to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, passing a bill out of committee that would permanently fund compensation for ailing survivors and first responders.
"We have asked so much of our 9/11 responders and survivors. We relied on them to rush to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon under horrible conditions," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
"It is time for us to give responders and survivors peace of mind, once and for all, and pass this long-term reauthorization to ensure the VCF will be there for them as long as they need it," he said.
When increasing levels of illness started showing up among the people who lived through 9/11 and answered the call to rebuild after it, Congress was reluctant to pass legislation helping them, doing it in five year chunks.
It finally made healthcare for responders and victims permanent in 2015, but only extended the Victim Compensation Fund to 2020. The $7.4 billion earmarked for that is rapidly vanishing as more and more illnesses emerge and more people die from exposure to the toxins unleashed at Ground Zero. Payouts were slashed in February by at least half. Some families are winding up with nothing because of payout formulas.
The new bill, which would extend the fund until 2090, passed on a voice vote, with no opposition or dissent — a far cry from earlier episodes when resistance had to be overcome.
But this time, lawmakers were united.
"The reason we do this is because we do remember," said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Committee. "The reason we do this is because we see the suffering."
Although plans for passing the bill in the full House have not been set, Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to responders on Tuesday that the measure would pass the House. It could advance before the Fourth of July break.
Then it will be in the Senate’s hands.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the floor minutes after the House action and implored Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to commit to acting quickly, once the House is done.
"As soon as the House passes this bill, it should be on the floor of the Senate, immediately, as a stand alone bill," Schumer said. "Once this bill passes the House, there will be only one person who stands between the brave first responders now suffering from cancer and illness and the money they need to save or extend their lives, and that one person is Leader McConnell."
“This is not politics. This is not a game,” Schumer added. “These are our heroes, American heroes, who are suffering and need our help — your help, Leader McConnell, is needed now.”
McConnell’s office declined to take Schumer up on his challenged, and referred to the Kentuckian’s comments at his Tuesday news conference, where he offered specific assurances.
"Gosh. I haven't looked at that lately," McConnell said. "We've always dealt with that in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again. But I haven't looked at it lately."
Responders and advocates are wary of McConnell. In testimony on Tuesday, Jon Stewart referred to him without name by pointing to attempts in 2015 to link 9/11 aid to lifting a ban on U.S. oil exports.