Congress Might Actually Pass A Permanent 9/11 Bill

Sen. Orrin Hatch said he'd be open to paying for the measure by closing a tax loophole on foreign insurance companies.

WASHINGTON -- The path to Congress passing a permanent 9/11 health and compensation bill got a little clearer Thursday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pledged to pass something before the end of the year. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who holds the key to funding a permanent bill as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was open to doing so.

"I favor reauthorizing the program," Ryan told reporters at his weekly Capitol Hill news conference. "I think this should get this done by the end of the year."

Ryan declined to get into specifics, saying he's asked the relevant committees to work out the details with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who is a lead sponsor of the bill to create a permanent program.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the compensation portion of the bill, has proposed only a five-year measure. The Energy and Commerce Committee, which would handle the health provision of any bill, has not offered legislation, but is considering both short-term and permanent options.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act funds key services for 9/11 responders and victims. Portions of the act began expiring this year, and lawmakers have not yet been able to agree on a replacement. One of the keys to passing any new program is coming up with funding.

The lead sponsor of legislation in the Senate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has proposed paying for a permanent bill by closing a tax loophole that lets foreign insurance companies escape certain fees that domestic insurance companies pay. It would generate about $9.5 billion.

Closing that loophole was part of a tax reform proposal floated in 2014 by Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, including Ryan. Hatch, the chair of the equivalent Senate committee, still favors the idea.

Even though tax reform is extremely unlikely to get done in this Congress -- Hatch told The Huffington Post, "We certainly need more than one year" -- the senator said he would still like to deal with the loophole.

"We ought to solve that problem," Hatch said. And that would leave the revenue available for another program.

Hatch said he didn't believe in "earmarking things off the top of my head," and that he had demands for such revenue "coming out my gazoo."

But, he said closing such a loophole to fund a 9/11 bill was a worthy option.

"Well, that's a potential. That's something we shouldn't ignore," Hatch said. "You have to look at everything that is hanging out there that you have an obligation to take care of. We're trying to do all of them. I just don't know where that would go right now."

Asked specifically if he was open to using that funding stream to help the people who responded to the World Trade Center attacks, Hatch said, "Sure."

There are already 66 cosponsors of the permanent 9/11 bill in the Senate, and about 250 sponsors in the House, meaning the bill would pass easily if the method to pay for it were attached and it came up for a vote.

While Ryan has said he wants his House committees to work out the final bill, the process would perhaps get the final push it needs if Hatch would provide the funding stream in the Senate.

"I'm not against it," he said.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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