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Zadroga Act extension approved by Congress

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) celebrate

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) celebrate with John Feal, of the Feal Good Foundation, in Washington, where lawmakers announced the Zadroga Act was included in the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

The yearlong campaign by ailing firefighters, police officers and construction workers to permanently extend the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act ended Friday when Congress overwhelmingly passed it as part of the $1.1 trillion 2016 federal spending bill and $620 billion tax break package.

That legislation, which includes $8.1 billion to fund the renewed act’s health and compensation programs, was approved in the House by a 313-113 vote and in the Senate by a 65-33 vote. President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law Friday afternoon.

After the Senate’s final vote, a dozen firefighters who had waited, stony-faced, for the announcement to make sure the act passed filed into the hall outside the chamber. “It’s a great day,” they said quietly as they hugged and patted each other on the back.

“It’s more of a sigh of relief than a victory,” explained one of them, retired New York City firefighter Jim Kadnar, dressed in his blue uniform and hat.

“There is no celebration,” said John Feal, an activist who made the Zadroga Act renewal his cause by organizing lobbying trips. “I’m just happy for those who needed this bill.”

Their weary and sober acknowledgment that they had, in the end, prevailed on Congress to extend the act contrasted sharply with their cheers and joy in 2010 when the House and Senate approved the first five-year Zadroga Act just days before Christmas.

“This should have been a walk in the park. It was a roller coaster,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who decried the politics that repeatedly threw up hurdles for its passage.

Schumer and other New York lawmakers credited Feal and the first responders who lobbied lawmakers and won them over, one by one, over the course of about two dozen trips to Washington in the past year.

Many of them became ill — and dozens have since died — with rare cancers after they rushed to Ground Zero on the day of the attacks and worked there for weeks and months to find victims and clean up what was toxic slag.

“This is the Christmas the 9/11 responders deserved: some peace of mind,” Schumer said.

“After months of tireless work by our 9/11 first responders, these brave men and women can finally feel secure that they will have health care for the rest of their lives. This victory belongs to them,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the act’s lead Senate sponsor.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), who proposed the first 9/11 health bill 11 years ago, said, “Never again will survivors and responders be forced to walk the halls of Congress, begging for health care.”

Long Island Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) also hailed approval of the act’s renewal, which they worked to pass.

The Zadroga measure extends the World Trade Center Health Program for 75 years at a cost of $3.5 billion and renews the Victims’ Compensation Fund for five years and fully funds it at $4.6 billion.

The health program, which monitors and provide care for about 73,000 responders and survivors of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan, expired on Oct. 1. The compensation fund was set to end Oct. 1, 2016.

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