WASHINGTON -- Nearly all of the Republican candidates for president are unable to decide if they support new legislation to aid Sept. 11 responders, even after the law that authorized treatments for Sept. 11-related illnesses expired last month.
More than 72,000 people across the nation are monitored by the 9/11 health program, and 33,000 ailing responders rely on it for treatment. But the program is officially on borrowed time, after Congress failed to enact a new law by Sept. 30.
The treatment effort is currently running on cash reserves, which the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention estimates will run out in 2016.
In a bid to focus attention on the program's uncertain future, advocates tried asking presidential contenders if they would come out in support of new legislation that's stuck in Congress.
At first, before the treatment portion of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act expired, only former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) and Democratic hopefuls signed on. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) eventually added his name as a sponsor to the bill offered in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Now, after the expiration, the group Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act has tried again, sending letters to all the candidates, noting in particular that almost all of them tweeted to 9/11 heroes on last month's anniversary with the hashtag #NeverForget.
But the group failed to get any more support.
The Huffington Post also reached out to the 15 GOP contenders, with similar results.
Besides bill backers Graham and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), three of the other White House aspirants can do more than lend support to the bill -- they can help pass it in the Senate.
A spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Cruz is carefully reviewing the bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) campaign referred the question to the Senate office, which did not answer.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Zadroga Act. More than half the committee's members are already sponsors, but not Paul. His office declined to say if he would support it.
The other candidates who were sent letters -- Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, John Kasich, Jim Gilmore, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum -- either did not answer email requests or declined to offer support.
The only Democrat who hasn't answered is former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, although he voted for the original law.
Pataki, who may be languishing in the polls, at least tried to lead his competitors on the issue of Sept. 11 and wrote his own letter appealing for their backing just before the health program expired.
"As Governor of New York at the time I witnessed the tragedy and the heroic response firsthand. Today, those heroes who responded so courageously need our help," Pataki told them. "They put the fight to save lives and our recovery as a nation ahead of concerns they might have felt for their own health. They have earned our support."
"We’ve already witnessed the national disgrace of a Veterans Administration that fails our nation’s heroes. Let’s not do to our first responders and others who acted so bravely what Washington has done to our veterans," he wrote.
At least eight more first responders have died of 9/11-related illnesses since Sept. 11 this year, according to Gillibrand's office. And a recently finished study of New York City Police found that officers who served at Ground Zero had cancer rates 50 percent higher than before the 2001 attacks.
Although the 2016 field has been reluctant to sign on to the bill, the legislation has been attracting growing numbers of sponsors in the Senate -- where it has a nearly filibuster-proof 57 -- and in the House, where it has 202, just 16 short of the 218 needed to guarantee passage.
Even if the bill attracts sufficient support, however, that does not ensure passage. Congressional leaders would still need to bring the bill to their respective floors for a vote. And so far, the committees with jurisdiction have yet to act.
With the turmoil afflicting the House lately and major, contentious legislation to fund the government, raise the nation's debt limit and deal with other issues still vying for attention, it is unclear when Congress will find the time to address the Zadroga Act.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.