- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - Comedian Jon Stewart, firefighters, policemen and other 9/11 first responders confronted lawmakers Thursday as they pressured Congress to extend health care benefits before they run out.

After a rally on the Capitol lawn, Stewart and several first responders - many sick or dying - personally sought support for legislation to extend medical monitoring, treatment and compensation dollars for those exposed to toxic dust while cleaning up after the 2001 attacks in New York.

The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at Ground Zero, first became law in 2010. The health benefits expired this fall.

Federal officials say the fund will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money does not come. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program, more than 70,000 people have enrolled, including more than 4,000 with cancer.

Supporters are hoping to get the extension passed before Congress leaves for the holidays. Lawmakers say they are close to a deal, but are still looking for a way to pay for the legislation, which could cost more than $8 billion. They are aiming to attach it to a year-end spending bill expected to be released next week or a package of tax breaks for businesses.

“This is stupid and embarrassing,” Stewart said at the rally, surrounded by first responders. “These guys should never have to come down here again.”

Stewart was host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” for 16 years before stepping down in August.

Later, Stewart talked to senators in a Capitol hallway as they walked to a vote. Along with a group of responders, some of them in wheelchairs, Stewart asked Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, why he wasn’t supporting the bill. Stewart told Portman it is “shameful” that Congress hasn’t extended the benefits and noted that people often say they won’t forget 9/11.

“This is forgetting,” Stewart said.

John Feal, a former World Trade Center demolition worker and leading advocate for sick responders, told the senator that he and other lawmakers would have “blood on your hands” if they didn’t pass the bill.

Portman said he thinks the legislation should be paid for but said he wants to see it passed. “We’ve got to figure it out,” he told Stewart.

Several of the first responders criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after the extension wasn’t added to a massive transportation bill earlier this week. Democrats had charged that McConnell blocked the 9/11 legislation from being attached to and paid for in the highway legislation.

On Wednesday, several of the first responders protested outside of McConnell’s office.

Firefighter Robert Digiovanni, who has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was one of those protesting. “Here we are, all dying, and they’re playing politics,” he said.

McConnell met with several of the responders Thursday, where he told them he wants the extension passed by the end of the year and is looking for a way to pay for it.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Wednesday he would back a permanent extension. But he suggested paying for the fund’s more than $4 billion cost with cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid, an idea that was quickly rejected by Democrats.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said Upton’s proposal shows momentum.

“We’re working on the right way to pay for it,” she said.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said they are close to a final agreement on the compensation portion of the law, which provides payments to people who suffered physical harm after the attacks.

At the rally, New York-area lawmakers said they weren’t interested in hearing leaders talk about how it will be paid for.

“This thing has been paid for in the lives and the heroism of the people we need to respond to,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.

Feal said he would continue to lobby with his fellow first responders until it is done.

“We’re going to be a thorn in their political backsides,” Feal said.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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