WASHINGTON — The long battle to make the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund permanent for all those suffering from the toxic aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack ended Tuesday when the Senate overwhelming approved the program’s fully funded extension.
In a strong bipartisan statement, the Senate voted, 97 to 2, for the legislation, mirroring the margin in the House’s bipartisan 402-to-12 vote earlier this month. First responders said they have been invited by President Donald Trump to attend a White House bill signing ceremony on Friday afternoon.
Former policemen and firefighters from New York, several of them ailing, activist John Feal of Nesconset and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart applauded the victory from the Senate gallery, with the knowledge that the bill would only ease the pain, not end it.
“There’s no joy. There’s no comfort. Yes, I cried with Jon,” said Feal, founder of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation at a news conference afterward.
“For that was an exhale. That was to get 18 years of pain and suffering out, and I believe it’s out.” He said his team of first responders would now go home — “and hopefully we don’t have to come back.”
Stewart, who shied away from praise for raising the profile of the 9/11 first responders, paid tribute to the men, now deceased, whose names are on the bill, and said, “They lifted this 9/11 community on their shoulders. And I will always be so proud to have been associated with it.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the key sponsor of the bill, cited the wake for NYPD Det. Christopher Cranston who died Saturday at age 48 from cancer caused by his work on the pile at Ground Zero as she urged her colleagues to vote yes.
After the bill passed, she said, “Today is not a celebration. it’s a deep sigh of relief. We have lost so many of our heroes, and sadly, more get sick and more will die.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also praised the first responders named on the bill — James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez — and told their family members: “Your losses, painful as they are, are not in vain, as today shows.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged his colleagues to vote for the legislation to fulfill its commitments to police, firefighters and other first responders who worked at their own personal risk at the World Trade Center after the attack.
“Congress can never repay them for their sacrifices, but we can do a small part to make our heroes whole,” said McConnell.
As senators voted, Stewart sat among first responders in the gallery above the Republican side and peered down. A few rows above him sat Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), a main sponsor of the bill; another original sponsor, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) stood at the back of the Senate chamber.
The final Senate vote came after a short debate on two amendments proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to pay for or curb the uncharted cost of the fund’s 72-year extension. Both amendments fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass.
Paul and Lee cast the only votes against the victim fund bill.
The legislation passed by Congress extends the fund until 2092 to cover the lifetimes of those affected; requires program reassessments every five years instead of annually; makes up shortfalls in awards due to inadequate funding; removes caps on some noneconomic damages; and adjusts awards for inflation over time.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the fund will cost $10.18 billion in its first decade but it said it could not estimate costs beyond that period.
Since its inception, the fund had paid out about $12.2 billion: $7 billion to the families of about 2,800 people who died and 2,680 injured in the attacks, and, since 2011, $5.174 billion to 22,500 people who have suffered cancers or other ailments from exposure to toxic debris and air. The figure includes payments to families of 850 people who died.
McConnell recalled meeting with Feal and other first responders several weeks ago, and how Feal gave him retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez’ badge as an NYPD bomb squad detective. Alvarez, who in early June pleaded with Congress to extend the victim fund, died June 29 of cancer linked to his work at Ground Zero,
“It was my honor to receive it,” McConnell said. “It was my honor to reiterate that the Senate’s ironclad commitment to getting this done was never in doubt.”
Feal thanked him after the vote. “He kept his word to those men that were in the meeting with me,” he said. “He was honest, he was sincere and everything he said he did.”