Nowadays, it's rare that anything of significance in the U.S. Senate passes on a bipartisan basis — never mind by a 94-4 vote. It's especially rare that anything having to do with the World Trade Center Health Program gets that kind of support. So, the Senate's near-unanimous backing of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would add $676 million to the health program is certainly worth applauding.
The health program provides assistance to more than 124,000 first responders and other survivors who have been sickened or still could get sick due to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The amendment importantly helps to address looming monetary shortfalls, while providing funds to allow all first responders at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, some of whom previously were omitted, to join.
The four Republicans who voted against the amendment — Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Markwayne Mullin and Tommy Tuberville — all promise year after year to "Never forget." And yet, they shamefully did.
For the amendment's many supporters, there's more to do. Come September, the House and Senate will have to reconcile their versions of the contentious defense funding bill; hopefully, the WTC amendment will survive. But even if successful, that is still a temporary fix, just another small piece of a still-unfinished puzzle.
The thousands who depend upon the health program are still waiting for Congress to make it fully funded, so that it no longer depends on temporary influxes of money to keep it whole. Efforts failed late last year to fix the funding formula to avoid gaps left by inflation and, sadly, a higher number of participants than anticipated. Since then, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with Rep. Andrew Garbarino, have done what they could, piece by piece, to keep the program going, to buy time.
But time is what our first responders and other survivors don't have. And as more time passes, it becomes easier to forget. To forget the acrid stench, that mix of jet fuel and burning steel, concrete and plastic. To forget the toxic smoke and soot and debris that filled the lungs of the residents and workers running from the burning buildings and the first responders who ran into the fire. To forget the thousands who spent months at Ground Zero and since became sick and died.
Advocates note that they're now working with some congressional staffers who were infants or not even born when the attacks occurred. And as more of our 9/11 first responders get sick and die, the fight for those who are left will become more difficult.
The political battles have gone on too long. Come Sept. 11, the federal lawmakers who again will proclaim "Never Forget" should make the needed fixes and end the fight — for good.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.