After a 402 to 12 vote in the House of Representatives on July 12 seemed to fast-track reauthorization of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, two Republican Senators five days later put holds on the bill that could dash advocates’ hopes of getting it approved before the Senate’s Aug. 3 summer recess.
The heads of the two city firefighter unions, one of whom accused one of the holdout Senators of “being an ass,” said they still believed the measure would be approved prior to the recess, expressing confidence that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring it to the floor, where nearly three-quarters of the 100 Senators are expected to vote for it.
‘McConnell Wants This’
Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald said July 18, “I am completely convinced that McConnell wants this done. We have 74 Senators on board. But we still have some work to do.”
His strongest anger was reserved for Mr. McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, who said he sought a hold on the bill because of concern that it would add to the national debt.
“I think he’s being an ass,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “He’s voted on all kinds of things that cost money and added to the debt. This is a human element—it warranted his attention.”
Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda said the other Senator who sought to block a vote, Mike Lee of Utah, wanted a spending cap on the program to deter fraud, according to members of his staff who spoke to advocates for the bill. Both union leaders contended in separate phone interviews that this shouldn’t be a concern.
“I told them that the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 VCF have been under constant scrutiny and are audited and known to be efficient programs, and what I sadly can’t put a cap on is how many first-responders are going to die,” Mr. Lemonda said.
‘Can’t Just Show Up’
Mr. Fitzgerald pointed out that to qualify for the VCF benefit, “I can’t show up tomorrow and just say I have asthma. You have to be able to show some progression” over the period since 9/11 and document that you were among those in the contaminated area for an extended period.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the extension is projected to cost $10.2 billion over the next 10 years. The House version that passed extends the program until 2090, but the CBO can only generate cost projections for a decade.
Without Congressional action, the 9/11 VCF, which has been a financial lifeline for thousands, is scheduled to close its doors by December 2020. Advocates hope that passage of the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act they won’t have to keep returning every few years for congressional approval.
Last year, the fund reported a major spike in claims from both the first-responder and survivor groups. So far, the fund has already committed over $5 billion of its original $7.3 billion appropriation but now has more new claims than it settled in the five years since Congress re-authorized it.
From 2011 through 2016, the agency had over 19,000 claims submitted, while in the time since it has gotten 28,000 more, a number that continues to grow.
As a consequence, in February, as required by the fund’s enabling legislation, it announced it would have to cut awards between 50 and 70 percent, depending on when the claims were submitted. Some claimants have already been advised that, barring congressional action, their award will be zero.
Since 1990, Congress has to varying degrees abided by a pay-as-you-go rule that requires that it offset increases in spending with reductions in existing spending or by raising new revenues.
But it can, as it did for the huge 2002 tax cut put forth by President George W. Bush and President Trump’s $1.5-trillion tax rollback in 2017, opted out of that requirement. To do so requires a majority of the House and 60 members in the Senate.
According to the New York Post, it was Mr. Lee who placed a hold on the 9/11 VCF renewal. When one of the bill’s prime sponsors, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, took to the Senate floor to move for a unanimous consent agreement, it was Mr. Paul who stymied her efforts.
“I reserve the right to object,” he said. “It has long been my feeling that we need to address our massive debt in this country—we have a $22-trillion debt [and] we’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year—and therefore any new spending that we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have longevity of 70, 80 years, should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable.”
Voted for Big Tax Cut
Mr. Paul voted in favor of the Trump tax cut, which primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and corporations.
“I am deeply disappointed that my colleague has just objected to the desperately needed and urgent bill for our 9/11 first responders,” Ms. Gillibrand countered. “Enough with the political games.”
Last month, a delegation of 9/11 WTC first-responders, led by John Feal, a 9/11 construction worker who founded the FealGood Foundation, met with Senator Majority Leader McConnell. At that meeting, he was presented with Detective Alvarez’s badge.
It was Mr. Alvarez’s poignant congressional testimony, just a few weeks before his death from a World Trade Center-related cancer, that helped the bill’s backers secure a highly unusual consensus in the House.
At that same meeting, Mr. McConnell committed to the advocates that he would bring the bill to a vote before next month’s recess.
‘Standing in the Way’
“Senator Lee and Senator Paul are standing in the way of help getting to injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families,” said Ben Chevat, with Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act. “Senator Lee wants to cap the program, and that’s what happened in 2010 and 2015 and each time 9/11 responders and survivors had to drag themselves through the halls of Congress. On 9/11, and for the months after, nobody put a cap on the time and effort first-responders put in.”
At a July 15 press conference, convened by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler to push for quick Senate action, WTC survivor Lila Nordstrom, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, described making multiple trips to lobby on behalf of the 20,000 former K-12 New York City schoolchildren who, like herself, attended schools in the WTC toxic zone after then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said the air was safe to breathe.
“In 2006, I was 22-years-old, and I went back in 2009 and 2010 for the passage of the Zadroga Act,” she recounted. “I went back later to advocate for the renewal….I have spent my entire twenties and half my thirties walking the halls of Congress telling the story of the scariest day and the scariest year of my life—telling stories about my personal health issues.”
She continued, “Every trip down there is a reminder that the government used us to make sure that Wall Street was back instead of taking care of the children that were in the direct line of this attack. Every time is a reminder that there is a black cloud over my health and future.”
‘Take Stress Off the Ailing’
Mr. Fitzgerald, noting the continuing number of Firefighters dying years after being infected while looking first for survivors and then for remains at the Trade Center site, said, “We don’t want to be visiting people in the hospital or in hospice care worrying about whether their families are gonna be taken care of.” Referring to Senator Paul, he continued, “He could’ve taken that stress off of them.”
He added that he believed the Senator opposed the bill not on fiscal grounds but because “he was looking for attention.”
Both fire-union leaders said they believed the bill would gain passage within the next two weeks, with Mr. Lemonda saying he would return to Washington, D.C. to continue lobbying on July 22.
“I have no reason not to think so,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “I think we have a real shot at this.”
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