POLITICS

Jon Stewart: Congress Is Treating Health Program For 9/11 Responders Like 'Just Another' Bill

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around why this is even in any way... controversial.”

WASHINGTON -- When Jon Stewart on Wednesday lobbied Congress on behalf of 9/11 responders, it stirred up the desired publicity. But any sense of hope the former "Daily Show" host came away with, he said, came from the responders themselves.

Because members of Congress made him feel just the opposite.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Stewart said that many lawmakers appear to have a fundamentally different perception than he does of the people who are ill and dying because of their work healing America after terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people in 2001.

Where Stewart sees construction workers, police officers, firefighters and volunteers who toiled under a toxic pall to pull bodies from rubble, put out flames and bring Wall Street back to life, too many of the politicians he met seemed to see just another special interest group, akin to supplicants for a pothole bill.

“They’re treating this as though it’s just another sort of bridge, infrastructure bill, without urgency or any special conditions,” Stewart said. “That’s the thing that I think is most discomfiting about what the responses have been.”

What 9/11 responders want is a permanent extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and which provides health benefits to tens of thousands of people who participated in Sept. 11 rescue efforts. Republicans in 2010 stipulated that the health program could only last five years, citing concerns about cost, effectiveness and the possibility of fraud.

More than 72,000 people now are monitored under the law, and more than 33,000 responders across the country rely on it to care for 9/11-related illnesses. But because of the bargain struck five years ago, the health program will stop receiving funding in two weeks. It will be able to rely on its cash reserves to keep operating into next year before shutting its doors entirely.

A bill that would make the law permanent, at least as long as there are responders still alive, has been introduced, but it has yet to advance in the House or Senate.

The senators and representatives who are not yet backing that bill appear to want something less ambitious, such as another five-year measure that would eventually require ailing Sept. 11 responders to beseech Congress once again for aid.

To Stewart, the situation is baffling.

“We’ve got guys going like, ‘Oh this is very interesting, we’ll definitely look into it,’ which is like, I guess what you would consider a ‘I have to stay home and wash my hair’ sort of brushoff,” he said. “This seems like as unassailable a piece of legislation as you could ever find here. And I’m just not quite sure what this all is. Why?”

The former Comedy Central host visited the offices of several lawmakers Wednesday, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who were away at the GOP presidential debate, and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, supports the bill, Stewart learned Wednesday. None of the other lawmakers stated their positions on it.

The comedian made his share of attention-generating jokes during his appearances Wednesday, but walking through the halls of the Capitol late in the day, he was entirely serious in discussing how he felt about it all.

When legislators met some of the more than 100 first responders who came to the Capitol -- including some who needed special medical accommodations -- and then turned around and offered Stewart non-answers and speculation about how the bill could be paid for, it did little to improve his opinion of Congress.

“It is by definition discouraging to see firefighters with stage 4 cancer having to take a bus down to Washington to ask for benefits,” he said.

Stewart said he didn’t want to predict what the impact of this week's visits might be. But he seemed newly appalled at the idea that politicians who last week pledged to "never forget" would sit and listen to ailing cops and firefighters, then ignore their pleas.

“I don’t have the context for this, because I’ve never done these types of things before. But it will shock the conscience,” he said.

Stewart pointed out that no 9/11 bill could possibly cost anywhere near as much as the wars Congress has funded through a deficit-hiking budget category euphemistically called "Overseas Contingency Operations."

“To have somebody sit in a room with these guys, and hear them tell their stories -- somebody who has voted for basically a slush fund for the military, the OCO program, that is more money than what these guys are asking for, that’s not paid for, that’s off the books, guys that live in states that have permanent funding for [health and compensation] programs like the nuclear program -- it will be difficult to reconcile those things,” Stewart said.

One of those health and compensation programs helps people sickened in Western states by atomic weapons development. One of those states is Mike Lee’s Utah. Another program offers aid to nuclear weapons workers in states such as Tennessee and Kentucky. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee where the Zadroga bill is pending, got a visit from responders, as did Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader.

None of those officials said "no" this week, but neither did they display the kind of urgency Stewart might have liked to see. McConnell told reporters Wednesday that Zadroga would be renewed, but he did not say when, or for how long.

Alexander said in a statement that the legislation is a “top priority,” but he did not endorse the idea of a permanent measure, and did not specify any date for action.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has assured us that funds remain available through the first part of next year to keep the program operating while Congress works to complete bipartisan legislation to extend this crucial program while making important reforms and improvements,” Alexander said.

That might be an example of the kind of language Stewart finds “discomfiting.”

“They’re viewing it as just another finance, fiscal bill,” Stewart said. “It’s a bridge repair on a road they don’t travel.”

Nevertheless, responders who came to the Capitol Wednesday said they were heartened by their visits. One of them is retired firefighter Ray Pfeifer, who has been fighting stage 4 cancer since 2009, and now has it in his ribs and lymph nodes.

“I think by coming down here, we did a really good thing. I think we pushed the bill along. I am very optimistic,” Pfeifer said. “I was very uplifted by the kindness of everybody, and they all get it, they all get it. It’s just they all have a little bit of [a] twist on things. Once they iron that out, I think this’ll be a done deal.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, announced that more than a dozen new lawmakers had signed on during the day, including seven in the Senate and 11 in the House. As of Thursday, 44 senators and 162 representatives had announced their support for the legislation.

Pfeifer met with McConnell shortly after the majority leader spoke to reporters, and encountered one of the twists he mentioned.

“It was very interesting. ‘We’re going to look into it.’ That’s what I got,” Pfeifer said. “I don’t know. He could make or break it, but I’m not sure."

"I’m not a big political guy," he went on. "I don’t know really what’s going on. I take people by their word. In a firehouse, you take a guy’s word, and that’s it.”

That's the kind of attitude Stewart finds uplifting -- reminding him, he says, of how Pfeifer and people like him had risen to an unimaginable occasion 14 years ago, as Stewart himself watched the devastation unfold outside his lower Manhattan apartment.

It was the sort of spirit that led Stewart, basically by happenstance, he said, to become perhaps the most influential voice to shame Congress into passing the Zadroga Act the first time around.

“We wanted to highlight it. That was the part that I think was so shocking -- that if you tried to bring the people who were not going to pass it out of the shadows and into the light, suddenly something happens,” Stewart said. “They had no problem not voting for it, as long as no one knew about it.”

“I still don’t understand it,” he added. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around why this is even in any way lethargic or controversial. It’s just hard to fathom.”

Tears welled in Stewart’s eyes at the end of the day as he reflected on what he'd seen from responders.

Before leaving, he went back over to Pfeifer, who was standing with a cane near his wheelchair to give an interview outside the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Stewart gave the fireman a half embrace. He started to tell Pfeifer what the man’s display meant to him, but the words failed him. “Your grace gives me…” Stewart said, ending by simply patting his hand over his heart.

Stewart hopes people like Pfeifer get though to the holdouts in Congress.

“In a lot of ways, they view this as past -- [that] this has passed,” he said. “Unfortunately for these guys,” he added, looking toward Pfeifer and others, “it’s not only their present but their future. So I’m -- I don’t know. Personally, I can’t sit in a room with these guys without feeling a responsibility.”

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

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