WASHINGTON — Two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, smoke still billowing from the site that would become known as Ground Zero, members of New York’s congressional delegation gathered outside of the West Wing waiting for a meeting with then-President George W. Bush.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), having surveyed the devastation of downtown Manhattan a day earlier, advised the group he would ask Bush to commit to another $20 billion in federal funding to aid New York’s recovery effort. Bush had already committed $20 billion a day earlier, for overall national counterterrorism efforts, and Schumer anticipated there might be some pushback to his request.
"I thought he would say ‘let me talk to my advisers,’ " Schumer said in a recent phone interview with Newsday, recalling his meeting with Bush. "He said ‘20 billion?’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ He said ‘You got it.’ I saw the jaws of his staff drop."
Bush’s immediate backing would be one of the rare times the New York delegation would face little resistance to their pleas for post-9/11 aid. Nearly 20 years later, the 29-member delegation, including Long Island’s five House representatives, continues to fight for funding to support local counterterrorism programs and health care programs for 9/11 survivors, often encountering resistance from Republican lawmakers representing areas outside the Northeast.
"If there's one thing I'm convinced of is that in Washington, D.C. — New York is not that popular," said Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove). "We had to fight to get the money for 9/11. We had to fight to get the money for [Superstorm] Sandy. We got taken advantage of with the cap on the SALT tax deduction. We had to fight to get the money for COVID for New York. We are not well-thought-of by other parts of the country, and we have to fight for everything we get. There are people that don't appreciate that we are still losing thousands of people to 9/11-related illnesses, and we need to take care of these folks. So we just have to fight for it."
In August, members of the delegation, including freshman Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), filed the "9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act" to address projected funding shortfalls to the World Trade Center Health Program. The program, approved by Congress in 2010, provides health care to more than 100,000 first responders and survivors grappling with 9/11-related health conditions. It is facing a reported $2.8 billion funding shortfall within five years as demand for the program has increased as more first responders and those exposed to the smoke and soot of that day have developed respiratory diseases and cancers.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), a lead sponsor of the measure, told Newsday she is "hopeful" the bill will pass when Congress reconvenes in mid-September. The delegation is hoping to avoid the nearly four-year push it took to establish the program under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and the subsequent push in 2015 to have the program extended through the year 2090.
"In the first days after the attack, I couldn’t even imagine the health conditions that responders and survivors would face," said Maloney, a 14-term incumbent and one of the longest-serving members of the delegation.
In July, the U.S. House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Garbarino to permanently fund the New York City-based National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, a decades-old federal laboratory that tests technologies that can be used in the event of a terrorist attack. The Trump administration in 2018 had proposed shutting down the lab, a move that ultimately fizzled because of bipartisan pushback. But the threat prompted Rice and other New York lawmakers to push for permanently funding the counterterrorism center, which provides support to the NYPD and local law enforcement agencies.
In 2018 and 2019, the House with overwhelming bipartisan support passed similar measures proposed by Rice and other members of the delegation to permanently fund the counterterrorism lab, and twice the measures languished in the then-GOP controlled Senate. Rice’s office said the current bill is waiting to be scheduled for a Senate committee hearing.
"You want to make sure that we have the most up-to-date technology to catch any sort of terrorist attack before it happens," said Garbarino about the need to protect the lab’s funding.
Garbarino, who was a high school senior when the attacks occurred, was elected in 2020 to fill the seat vacated by longtime Congressman Pete King, a Seaford Republican, who once chaired the powerful House Homeland Security Committee, and who often served as the lead Republican sponsor on 9/11-related legislation, including the Zadroga Act.
King, who retired from office last year, said he is concerned that as time passes "interest has dissipated" when it comes to the issues surrounding 9/11.
"It’s almost like 9/11 became a historical footnote, almost like Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg," said King of the opposition the New York delegation has received over the years. "They’re not realizing that the issue is very much alive; there are so, so many people who are still suffering, so many family members still struggling. The pain is still very much real 20 years later."
In a delegation composed mostly of Democrats, King played a key role in pressing Republican lawmakers to support 9/11-related legislation during his time in Congress as several raised concerns about the long-term costs.
New York law enforcement agencies have received more than $2 billion in federal funding since the 2001 attacks to boost counterterrorism programs under the Urban Area Security Initiative, according to Schumer’s office. The initiative, operated by the Department of Homeland Security, provides large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Long Island with grants to use for equipment, counterterrorism training and regional disaster response drills.
Twice the delegation has had to fight off attempts by both the Obama and Trump administrations to cut the initiative’s funding.
"As New Yorkers, we understand the need to remain vigilant when it comes to terror because our home has been a primary target of terrorists in the past," Schumer said.
Only five of the delegation’s current members were in office when the attacks occurred — Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), Maloney, and Schumer — but veteran members and freshmen alike say keeping the memory of 9/11 alive is embedded into the DNA of the delegation, regardless of party or age.
"Whether it’s AOC," Garbarino said, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx/Queens). "Or Nicole Malliotakis [R-Staten Island], who are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, I think everybody gets it."
Suozzi said "everybody in the delegation knows that we have to constantly make this a priority."
"We’re literally Ground Zero and so we have an impact here that’s unlike other places. We just need to respectfully, persistently and strongly advocate for our city, and our state," he said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said that despite the opposition the delegation has faced over the years, he believes "one way we can continue building support for these bills and programs is to reemphasize that 9/11 wasn’t just one horrific event 20 years ago. We are still feeling the real-world impacts of 9/11 today."
Zeldin said lawmakers must continue to hear the stories of fallen first responders such as NYPD Det. Luis G. Alvarez, of Oceanside, who became one of the most visible advocates pushing for 9/11 funding. Alvarez died in June 2019 at age 53 after battling cancer linked to his time working at Ground Zero.
"It’s imperative that we continue telling the stories of heroes like Luis and continue supporting all those who answered the call of duty," Zeldin said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a statement said Congress must remember: " ‘We will never forget 9/11’ is not just a slogan, but a reality we must uphold."