One day after comedian Jon Stewart shamed Congress for not acting sooner to safeguard aid for 9/11 first responders, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill to ensure they continue to get the federal financial support.
In a vote that was scheduled prior to Stewart’s appearance, lawmakers on Wednesday approved the permanent reauthorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act, which would provide funding to victims and families for 70 years. Under current law, the funding program is slated to stop accepting claims for aid at the end of 2020. The bill would also provide more money for the program amid concern that future payouts would be cut as much as 70%.
“When the Twin Towers collapsed in my district in lower Manhattan, hundreds of tons of contaminants poured onto the streets and covered first responders, residents, office workers, and students in a cloud of toxic dust,” he said. “Despite clear evidence of this environmental and health disaster, the (Environmental Protection Agency) insisted that the air in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn was ‘safe to breathe.’ That was not true. Because, as we knew even then, the air was not safe to breathe. In fact, it was deadly.”
Following Wednesday’s vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the chamber’s Republican leadership to get the bill on the floor immediately after it passes the House, as he anticipates.
“It’s shameful ― there’s no other word for it ― shameful that our brave first responders have had to suffer the indignity of delay after delay after delay of searching for some must-pass bill to tuck their issue into because this Congress, this Senate didn’t think it was important enough to pass on its own,” he said. “Let me tell you something: We are done with that.”
He called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take action for the “American heroes who are suffering need our help.”
McConnell hasn’t yet committed himself on the measure. Asked whether he would support the fund’s reauthorization, he told reporters on Wednesday that he wasn’t sure, according to NBC News.
“Gosh, I hadn’t looked at that lately,” he said. “I’ll have to. We’ve always dealt with that in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again.”
Stewart, long an advocate for 9/11 first responders, appeared on Tuesday alongside some of them to testify before the Judiciary Committee. Several panel members were absent, which sparked Stewart’s ire.
“Sick and dying, (the first responders) brought themselves down here to speak to no one,” the former “Daily Show” host said. “It’s an embarrassment to the country and it’s a stain on this institution.”
The headline-making speech took aim at what has been Congress’ reluctance to fully protect and prolong the funding stream, reminding legislators that police, firefighters and EMS workers ― including many who were off duty ― sprang into action on 9/11 while the politicians have been painstakingly slow in addressing the aid issue.
“They responded in five seconds,” Stewart said. “They did their jobs [with] courage, grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours!”
First responders have been fighting Congress for adequate support for years, as a growing number of deaths have resulted from cancers and respiratory illnesses related to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that targeted New York and the Washington area and in which about 3,000 people were killed.
In 2011, Republicans tried to thwart passage of a bill to set aside $4.3 billion to finance medical treatments and health services for first responders and emergency workers facing health complications from toxic exposure at Ground Zero in New York, the site where the World Trade Center stood. Despite the GOP’s filibuster effort, the measure was signed into law.
A study estimated that by the end of 2018, more people had died from toxic exposure caused by the 9/11 attacks than from the immediate impact of the terrorism.
In February, fund administrator Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that sufficient money was lacking “to pay all current and projected claims at the same levels as under current policies and procedures.”