WASHINGTON — Former talk show host Jon Stewart lashed out at Congress Tuesday as ailing first responders pleaded for a permanent extension of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, whose dwindling resources have led to award cuts of up to 70 percent.
Stewart, the onetime host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, spoke after first responders told stories of illness and death at a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting and gave a standing ovation for former NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez, who traveled to Washington to testify a day before his 69th chemotherapy treatment.
“You made me come,” Alvarez told the lawmakers, speaking slowly and in a slightly raspy voice. “I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick.”
Stewart then lit into the Congress as just six lawmakers — five Democrats and a Republican — remained for the hearing on legislation for fully funding the Victim Compensation Fund, which is fast running out of money and time. It's set to expire at the end of 2020.
“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress,” Stewart said.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution, and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said.
Stewart added, “Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time.”
"I am awfully tired of hearing that it's a 9/11-New York issue. Al Qaida didn't shout death to Tribeca. They attacked America," he said.
Stewart’s scolding prompted a second standing ovation from the first responders, but prompted the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), to protest that his panel has only 13 members and that a full committee hearing would be better attended.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the top committee Republican and son of a first responder, said that he couldn’t “recall being so moved by testimony,” but said he wanted to see an estimate of what the full funding for a permanent program would cost.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said the Congressional Budget Office would make an estimate, but compared 9/11 to an act of war. “The CBO will give us a guess. But it won’t matter. We have to do it.”
Anesta Maria St. Rose Henry choked up and wept several times as she spoke of her husband Candidus Henry, a construction worker, who died last month at age 62. “He was the life of my family,” she said.
“The reason I have to worry is because Congress thinks it's OK for my husband’s life to be worth at least 70 percent less than ... other construction workers” who died from working at Ground Zero.
Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the Victim Compensation Fund, announced in February that because only about $2 billion of the $7.4 billion fund remained, she was forced to slash claims submitted on or before Feb. 1, 2019, by 50 percent and those filed after by 70 percent.
The full House appears likely to pass the legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), who is wearing a firefighter coat until the bill passes, and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). A House vote could occur within the next two or three weeks.
The legislation is co-sponsored by 306 House members — including 80 Republicans, Maloney said. Nadler said his panel will consider the bill and likely approve it and send it to the House on Wednesday.
But the bill faces a tougher path in the Senate, where it has only eight Republican co-sponsors and powerful senators, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), want to limit its cost and duration.
Asked about the Victim Compensation Fund Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “Gosh, I hadn't looked at that lately. I'll have to. We've always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he is more optimistic than in the past, citing conservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as a co-sponsor.
But Schumer added, “I would hope and pray for the sake of those who are suffering so who are heroes that McConnell wouldn't just block it as he has blocked it in the past.”