WASHINGTON - Comedian Jon Stewart's day on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers to extend health benefits for 9/11 emergency workers ended Wednesday with hopes, fatigue and continuing frustration.
As Stewart, dressed in a dark blue FDNY T-shirt, drew massive media attention as he and first responders visited lawmakers, key Republican leaders said for the first time that they would renew the program -- a big step. But they also hinted they might wait until next year.
John Feal, a key advocate for 9/11 responders and survivors, and an organizer of the day's lobbying, welcomed the pledges but said it was "reckless" to talk about not acting now to renew the bill.
"The big question is: Are we getting a fully funded and fully extended bill?" he said.
Stewart reflected his own frustration with Congress at an afternoon news conference -- where nine politicians spoke first -- when he praised the men and women, many of them ailing, who rushed to help out at Ground Zero after the Sept 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks and now were lobbying Congress.
"I want to congratulate them for their grace. They have borne this burden with integrity; they ask only for what they need," said Stewart, who retired in August as host of "The Daily Show." "And I want to congratulate them for getting through these press conferences and meetings, because, oh my God, is it [expletive] boring."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the bill's chief sponsor, brought Stewart to Washington to get lawmakers to focus on her legislation that has languished since spring to permanently extend the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, despite a dozen lobbying trips by first responders.
The first responders met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and the two top members of the Senate health committee, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (R-Wash.), among others.
In anticipation of that visit, McConnell told reporters, "We do plan to extend the program, and the committees of jurisdiction in the House and the Senate are actually working on the details now."
But Alexander, while calling reauthorizing the Zadroga Act "a top priority," also issued a statement that said he had been assured the program would be funded "through the first part of next year to keep the program operating while Congress works to complete bipartisan legislation."
And Emily Schillinger, spokeswoman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said, "Our members and leadership team are reviewing the legislation and are committed to protecting the victims of 9/11."
Benjamin Chevat, who runs Citizens for Extension of the James Zadroga Act, said lawmakers now are paying attention. But he added, "The ones who are not on the bill need to explain why they aren't."
In 2010 Stewart dedicated an episode of "The Daily Show" to shame Congress into passing the Zadroga Act. Last month, he retired but suggested those opposing the act's renewal could still face public shaming.
"I'm not on television anymore," Stewart said, "but I sure as hell know a lot of people who are."