Maybe this time will do it. Maybe Congress finally got the message, and after 18 years will pass permanent legislation to help Sept. 11, 2001, first responders.
At least, members of the House Judiciary Committee said they would Tuesday as they heard testimony on a new bill to fully extend the expiring Victim Compensation Fund that has already slashed payouts by more than half.
All it took was the pleas of medical experts, survivors, a newly widowed mom, a dying NYPD detective and an absolute blistering by former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
“Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders. And in front of me, a nearly empty Congress,” Stewart told the committee, looking from a witness chair at the raised seats of members, most of which were not occupied.
He pointed to the people packing seats behind him and beside him. “Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak — to no one. It’s shameful,” Stewart said. “It’s an embarrassment to the country and it’s a stain on this institution.”
Stewart went through a litany of congressional failure that is by now familiar to him and to all the other 9/11 advocates in that room. In 2010, after years of denials by federal and local officials that there was even a real problem, Congress recognized 9/11 toxins were making people sick and killing them. But it passed only five years worth of help. In 2015, it passed permanent health care, but left compensation at just five more years.
That Victim Compensation Fund is what is running out of money now, long before its 2020 expiration. In February, the fund’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced payouts had to be slashed by at least 50%.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline, an expert on 9/11 illnesses, testified Tuesday that she expects to see another 20,000 cancer cases emerge related to 9/11. That leaves out worsening breathing illnesses and other ailments.
One witness was a first responder who already has cancer. Retired NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez came to tell Congress that he wouldn’t be in that hearing room at all if the legislators had acted sooner.
“I should not be here with you, but you made me come,” said Alvarez, who is frail from his disease and read his remarks slowly. “You made me come because 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 and die.”
Alvarez already got compensated for his cancer, and isn’t worried about the future for his own family. But anyone coming after him will get much less, simply because of the timing, and the limits Congress put on the compensation fund.
Alvarez doesn’t know how much longer he will live. He said he was “lucky enough to have had 68 rounds of chemo,” and was heading for round 69 on Wednesday.
It meant his family was secure, and he had time to spend with them, unlike so many other first responders.
Stewart pointed to the cruel irony that Alvarez was spending some of that precious time in a hearing room, nearly 18 years after the terrorist attacks.
“We don’t want to be here. Lou doesn’t want to be here. None of these people want to be here,” Stewart said. “But they are. And they’re not here for themselves. They’re here to continue fighting for what’s right.”
Responders, Stewart pointed out, took five seconds to answer the alarms of 9/11.
Congress is still grinding slowly away with “callous indifference and rank hypocrisy,” Stewart said. “Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity — time,” he said, shaking his head to collect himself — “the one thing they’re running out of.”
He also took aim at another claim he’s heard in nearly 10 years of pushing for 9/11 aid — the assertion that it’s a New York issue.
“Al Qaeda didn’t shout ‘Death to Tribeca!’ They attacked America,” Stewart said. “These men and women, and their response to it, is what brought our country back. It’s what gave a reeling nation a solid foundation to stand back upon, to remind us of why this country is great, of why this country is worth fighting for, and you are ignoring them.
“And you can end it tomorrow,” he said.
In fact, committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn) announced at the start of the hearing that the committee would pass the new legislation Wednesday.
The top Republican on the subcommittee that heard the first responders Tuesday, the crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations panel, pledged that the bill would pass.
“If it’s any comfort to you all, we know this bill’s going to pass with an overwhelming landslide majority of the House — it may be unanimous or close to it, and it should be,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.).
The measure’s fate is less certain in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made no promises about the bill.
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