WASHINGTON - A political fight that some said pitted patriotism against partisanship ended Wednesday in compromise as both houses of Congress passed the Zadroga 9/11 health care bill for workers who became ill after working on the debris pile at Ground Zero.
A deal worked out between New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Republican senators, cleared the way for passage of a $4.3-billion bill that will fund the health care costs of first responders, police, firefighters and other workers who labored at the World Trade Center site immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
The air they breathed while working at the smoldering pile has caused respiratory problems and rare cancers, the workers claimed.
"The Christmas miracle we've been looking for has arrived," Schumer and Gillibrand said in a statement.
Members of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group for responders sickened by their work at Ground Zero, were relieved that their effort, ongoing since at least 2006, was over after the Senate passed the legislation by unanimous consent Wednesday.
"We lost a lot of battles, and lost a lot of good people," said foundation head John Feal, of Nesconset. "But we won the war."
Some 60 members of the group were in the Senate gallery. They emerged after the vote and shared hugs and tears. "We did it!" Wendy Flammia, of Miller Place, said into her cell phone to the widow of her late friend John McNamara, a first responder who died in August 2009 of colon cancer.
Still, the coverage in the bill shrank significantly in order to win over Republican critics.
Gillibrand, the bill's chief sponsor, and Schumer originally had $7.4 billion in the measure, but last weekend dropped the amount to $6.2 billion over 10 years. The $4.3-billion bill that passed Wednesday also shortens the amount of time those suffering health problems have to sign up for benefits and caps legal fees at 10 percent.
First responder Kamesmntchu Rael, a former correction officer from Freeport who suffers from respiratory problems, noted that when he left for Washington on Tuesday, the bill "was at $7 billion. We return today and it's at $4 billion. So I really don't know how this is going to affect individuals who need financial assistance."
But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who had opposed the bill as an unnecessary entitlement, touted the fact that the compromise bill would "lower costs dramatically. Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity."
President Barack Obama could sign the legislation into law as early as next week, supporters said.
When the day began Wednesday, it appeared that a vote on the legislation might never occur. With the Christmas holiday looming, Schumer said he feared Republican opponents would hold up a vote until too few senators were in Washington to vote.
But negotiations yielded an agreement Wednesday morning, which was followed by a unanimous consent vote in the Senate, and then a 260-60 vote in the House, which already had approved a version of the bill in September.
Phil Rizzo of Glen Cove, who had traveled by bus to Washington to lobby senators and witness the vote, worked at Ground Zero, and said he suffers respiratory problems as a result. The former correction officer said all the back-and-forth negotiations over the benefits legislation was hard to take. "We cleaned up that pile in six months," Rizzo said. "If we worked like the Senate, that pile would still be sitting there."
With Ridgely Ochs
and Gary Dymski
Zadroga bill's impact
Passed yesterdayWednesday, the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act would:
- PROVIDE $4.3 billion for health care and compensation
- CAP federal funding for the health program over five years at $1.5 billion, with New York City contributing 10 percent of the cost. Funds not spent in the first five years may be spent in the sixth year of the program.
- REOPEN the Victim Compensation Fund for five years to file claims, with payments to be made over six years. Fund the VCF at $2.8 billion for six years. Claims to be paid in two installments - one payment in the first five years and a second in the sixth year of the program.
Claims under the bill may be made beginning July 1, 2011.
Sources: Offices of Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand