WASHINGTON — A group of 9/11 first responders — including three advocates from Long Island — who met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said the lawmaker committed to scheduling an August vote to renew the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund before it expires next year.
John Feal, a first responder from Nesconset, speaking to reporters outside of McConnell's office, said the Kentucky Republican told the group the Senate would take up legislation to reauthorize the fund in August, after an expected House vote in July.
McConnell's office did not immediately respond to inquiries about the closed-door meeting, which came two weeks after several 9/11 first responders made an impassioned plea at a congressional hearing for lawmakers to permanently extend the fund. The fund provides aid to those who were sickened and injured by their rescue and recovery work in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
"To get the Senate majority leader's commitment means a lot," said Feal. "It means that we're all going to work together, Republicans, Democrats, and the advocates to ensure that those affected at all three terror sites, all those who are affected by the toxins … all those who have serious respiratory illnesses, they're going to get the help that they definitely deserve."
Feal declined to say whether McConnell agreed to a permanent extension, which advocates have long demanded, or another five-year renewal. Advocates have argued that such a renewal is unfair to the sickened workers concerned about the program's future. In February, a special master appointed to oversee the fund said it was running short on money, and warned that future payments to first responders could be slashed by 50 percent.
"He knows the importance of getting the full extension," Feal said, adding that advocates were prepared to continue their fight.
"This is an issue that's bigger than Mitch McConnell. ... It's bigger than all of us," said Feal, who lost his foot after working to clear the rubble from Ground Zero. "This is a generation-long battle. Even if they pass the bill at 5 o'clock today, people are still going to get sick and die from the aftermath of 9/11."
McConnell's commitment to the group came shortly after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced that legislation she has sponsored in the Senate to make the fund permanent reached 60 co-sponsors, which protects the bill from the prospect of a fillibuster.
“A bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority of the Senate has now co-sponsored our bill to make the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent," Gillibrand said in a statement. "We have the votes for this bill to pass as soon as it comes to the floor. I urge Senator McConnell to not stand in the way and commit to a standalone, up-or-down vote on this legislation as soon as it passes the House. Our 9/11 first responders are sick, they are dying, and they have already had to spend too much of their precious time traveling to Washington and fighting to convince members of Congress that making the [fund] permanent is the right thing to do."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler of Manhattan, in a joint statement, called on Congress to move quickly to pass bipartisan legislation sponsored by the trio that would permanently extend the fund.
“The 9/11 community needs and deserves our support and the quicker we get this bill passed, the better," the lawmakers said. "We have a double moral obligation to these heroic men and women. First, for those who were there for us in one of our nation’s darkest hours. They ran into the flames when everyone else was running away. Secondly, our government told all those who worked on the pile and lived, worked and went to school near Ground Zero that the air was safe to breathe, and water was safe to drink when it wasn’t. They are sick because of us. Fully funding and permanently extending the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is the least we can do as a grateful nation.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Senate speech Tuesday before the meeting, also repeated his calls to make the fund permanent.
“I’m glad the leader has agreed to meet with them. It’s a good thing. But it’s not enough to have just a meeting," Schumer said. "These brave men and women who rushed to the towers selflessly, in the midst of danger, when no one knew what would come next — they deserve a commitment that their bill will be considered in a timely manner here on the floor."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has expressed support for the bipartisan measure, which also shares the bipartisan backing of Long Island’s congressional delegation.
Tuesday's meeting had been in the works for weeks, said Feal, before McConnell was publicly shamed by comedian Jon Stewart for not immediately coming out in support of a permanent extension of the fund.
Stewart, a longtime advocate on behalf of the first responders, tore into McConnell earlier this month, telling “Fox News Sunday” that the Senate leader “has been the white whale of this since 2010,” referring to McConnell’s previous attempts to tie the funding’s passage to other GOP legislative priorities.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee approved bipartisan legislation to renew the fund following an emotional hearing featuring Stewart and 9/11 first responders grappling with cancer and other illnesses tied to their rescue and recovery work.
Feal, speaking to reporters, said the repeated trips to lobby lawmakers to protect the fund were taking their toll on first responders fighting for their lives. Through tears, Feal said he has attended more than 180 first responder funerals.
Retired FDNY firefighter Michael O'Connell of Westbury, who developed an autoimmune disease after his work on Ground Zero, said he missed his son's sixth-grade graduation on Tuesday to attend the meeting with McConnell.
"I couldn't be there for him … but I think me being here was as important for my son as me watching him cross the stage," O'Connell said. "Unfortunately, there are still many people sick and dying and they can't fight for themselves, so those of us who can, will continue to speak up."