For the third time over the last two decades, first responders and other survivors of the September 11, 2001 attacks have come to Congress to ask for help. The question this time around is whether Senate Republicans will force them to repeatedly drag themselves back this year to beg for their country’s support as more continue to die.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act is facing its second reauthorization fight, and funds have run dry for the part of program that gives out money to help victims of the attacks and family of the deceased cope with their loss. Once again, sick and suffering first responders and other 9/11 survivors traveled to Washington on Monday to beg Congress for help. This time, the only potential obstacle to the program are Senate Republicans.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers convened in Washington on Monday with 9/11 survivors and advocates to call for the program’s permanent reauthorization, as the half of the program that gives financial support to sickened victims and the families of those who died is running out of funds and is set to expire next year.
The first time the program passed, it was a hard-fought triumph for supporters and survivors. The second time, it was a relief. This time, sick and still-grieving advocates are exhausted.
“It’s an emotional drain. It brings back all the old memories. It brings back tears in my eyes,” Joe Zadroga told TPM on Monday.
Zadroga’s son James, a New York Police Department officer, was one of the first to die from 9/11-related illness, and is the man the law is named after. The elder Zadroga has fought ever since his son was diagnosed to make sure the government stood up to help the heroes of 9/11 so that other families wouldn’t have to suffer as much as his did. He expressed frustration that he’s still having to fight.
“My granddaughter, she’s 17 years old, it hurts her more now than it did then. She tells me almost every night she cries herself to sleep,” he said, wiping away a tear. “I don’t see why we should have to be here. They should just automatically do this.”
The Victims Compensation Fund is running out of money, largely because more people have been confirmed with 9/11-related diseases than anticipated. More than 20,000 claims have paid out $5 billion, two thirds of the total authorized by Congress in 2015, and the fund’s administrator announced earlier this month that those with pending claims will only get half as much paid to them than those who are currently receiving help. New applicants will get just 30 percent of earlier payments. Next year, unless Congress intervenes, new applicants to the program won’t get anything. That’s significant, as more people die every year from 9/11-related illnesses. If trends hold, more people will have died from their diseases in the years after than died on the actual day of the attacks.
“True heroes kept walking the halls of Congress every single day demanding that Congress do the right thing,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a top supporter, told reporters during a Monday press conference. “We must not force our 9/11 heroes to go through this same exhausting process again.”
This is the third time 9/11 first responders have had to come begging to Congress for help, dragging along air tanks and weaving through through the halls in wheelchairs. It took nearly a decade of lobbying, investigations and compromises that limited the program’s length and scope for lawmakers to pass the original program in 2010. To appease Senate Republican holdouts, lawmakers limited the program’s funding to five years. When it came up for reauthorization in 2015, congressional Republicans in both chambers dragged their feet for months as weary and sick first responders were forced to return time and again to shame them into passing the program.
This time, the bill is likely to sail through the House. Democrats control the lower chamber. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), a top supporter alongside Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Peter King (R-NY), chairs the Judiciary Committee. President Trump has said in the past he supports the program, though the White House is unlikely to spend much capital passing the bill. The Senate is the big question.
Senate Republicans nearly killed the program in 2010, filibustering it for unrelated reasons, and a handful of GOP lawmakers forced limits on the program before letting it pass. In 2015, Republicans dragged their feet for months over demands it would be budget-neutral before allowing the program to pass in a broader package.
House Republicans lost their leverage when they lost the majority, but the Senate remains an impediment. A number of Republicans support permanently reauthorizing the program — including Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), longtime supporters — but it’s unclear whether enough Republicans will support permanently funding the bill to allow it to overcome a filibuster and get a clean up-or-down vote.
“This is about 12 Republicans on the Senate side. That’s all this is. You get 12 Republicans on the Senate side and this bill goes through,” said Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for the program who used his former perch on “The Daily Show” to fight hard for its creation and reauthorization.
Stewart laced into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for his reluctance to support the program. Stewart said he met with McConnell the last time around, and blasted him for trying to tie it to other unrelated measures that McConnell wanted to see passed in order to allow it support.
“I can assure you that he is an impediment to getting this done,” he said. “He used these men and women as a pawn.”
Many of the survivors who lobbied on the bill weren’t able to be there on Monday. Leaders like former New York City firefighter Ray Pfeiffer, a champion of the bill, have died from their diseases.
In their place came people like Karen Gaines, whose husband Scott was an NYPD officer who died last year from 9/11-related cancer.
“My husband died waiting for the VCF and believing that this country was going to stand here and protect his family when he couldn’t,” she said Monday before begging lawmakers to permanently reauthorize the program.
When Congress last authorized the programs in 2015, it made the healthcare program permanent. That program is now monitoring 93,000 people who were exposed to toxins at Ground Zero. But the families who depend on the program’s other half need Congress to act.