WASHINGTON -- Most members of Congress had something to say about never forgetting the heroes of 9/11 as the 14th anniversary of those attacks passed Friday, but by the end of the day, only about a third of federal lawmakers had signed onto new legislation to aid those ailing responders.
The old law to help those responders passed nearly five years ago. It begins expiring next month, yet legislation to extend that aid remains stuck in Congress. More than a dozen lawmakers threw their support behind the bill over the last week, but that brings the numbers to only 145 out of 435 House members and 37 of 100 senators.
That’s far fewer than the majority required to pass a long-term version of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and head off interruptions in care to more than 33,000 ill 9/11 responders around the country.
Yet many of the legislators who wrapped themselves in declarations of “Never Forget” on the Friday anniversary are among those who have not backed the bill, or even voted against the original measure.
Indeed, a quick search through Twitter on Friday found the only one of the Senate’s 2016 White House aspirants who didn’t declare “Never Forget,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is also the only one to back the bill helping sick responders.
The rest all declared their unfailing memories even though they have not backed the legislation.
It’s not as if they have not had a chance to think about it. They've all been asked about it, and have been reluctant to explain their opposition. And advocates for the legislation have made dozens of trips to Capitol Hill -- often with their wheelchairs and oxygen tanks -- lobbying hundreds of lawmakers and their staffs over the past year.
And while many missed the opportunity of the grim anniversary to become bill supporters, the advocates are giving them another high-profile chance next week on Wednesday, when former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart is set to hold a rally for the bill and visit reluctant lawmakers with 9/11 responders.
Stewart and company certainly noted the dissonance of legislators who expressed devotion to 9/11 responders, but have not pushed for the permanent bill to help them.
“For those members of Congress who spent today [Friday] making statements about ‘Never Forgetting,’ who still do not go on the bill after learning the extent of the health problems faced by so many from 9/11, we know that Jon Stewart knows how to point out hypocrisy,” said Ben Chevat, the executive director of Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act, which is pushing for the bill.
His group maintains a web tool that tracks congressional support, and lets users contact lawmakers about the bill directly.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used the occasion of the anniversary to implore her party to back the legislation, although more than 100 House Democrats already have. The numbers of Republicans have also been growing, with Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas backing the measure this week. There are now 33 House Republicans supporting the bill, with six in the Senate.
Chevat put a positive spin on the slowly growing number of politicians who have backed the bill.
“As members of Congress get the chance to learn the size and scope of the health crisis facing 33,000 of their constituents, in every state, the disabling illnesses and cancers that afflict so many, they do remember 9/11, when the nation was united,” Chevat said.
The part of the Zadroga Act that funds treatment for illnesses expires in October, although it is expected to have enough money in reserve to keep operating for a while longer. The portion that pays compensation expires on Oct. 3, 2016. Anyone who develops one of the slow-moving cancers or lung ailments now afflicting responders after that date will not only lack a treatment option if Congress doesn’t act, but they’ll be ineligible for any compensation as well.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.