Joined by lawmakers and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, irate 9/11 first responders gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday to demand that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan restore a program in upcoming budget talks giving health care to first responders who dealt with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act provides treatment for 9/11 first responders who suffered medical conditions as a result of the dust and poisonous air conditions following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. It was not reauthorized last year and will expire by the end of the month unless it is included in an omnibus budget bill now before Congress.
Mr. Stewart came to Washington in September to lobby Congress to fund first responder health care, hoping that his presence on the Hill would spur swift action.
He blasted Mr. McConnell on Thursday for making campaign ads touting his push to create an $11 billion fund for coal miners in his home state of Kentucky with black lung disease, but not moving $4.6 billion for the 9/11 victims.
“This is insane, but as I see the scene here, it begins to make sense to me about how our government works,” Mr. Stewart said. “We have a bunch of first responders outside, freezing in the middle of a field, while our country’s last responders, our country’s worst responders, are inside nice and comfy and cozy, probably having soup.”
The Zadroga Act was first introduced in 2006 but was tabled when Congress said the $7.4 billion price tag was too high. Mr. Stewart took lawmakers to task on his show in 2010, and within six days of the segment airing, the legislation was passed, albeit with a lower budget.
International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger said at Thursday’s rally that he was “angry as hell” that Congress hadn’t reauthorized the bill, placing the blame on the House and Senate GOP leadership.
“The simple truth is that we don’t need more co-sponsors,” he said. “The fate of this 9/11 health and compensation act rests in the hands of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They have the singular power to simply decide to move Zadroga to passage.”
The bill has 261 co-sponsors in the House “and counting,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, said, and 66 co-sponsors in the Senate. Members of both parties have endorsed the bill, and with a veto-proof majority in the Senate, the legislation should pass if it comes to a vote, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, New York Democrat, said.
Mr. McConnell did not include the 9/11 program in the just-passed highway bill, one option to get it passed by the year’s end, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said.
“I am tired of hearing political leaders say I’ll only do it if you trade this, this, this or this. The lives of our first responders are not tradeable,” Mr. Schumer said.
Mr. McConnell’s office said that he supports passage by the end of the year, but the Zadroga Act hadn’t been included in the highway bill because it did not have details on how to pay for it.
“There are ongoing negotiations there on that piece,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.
The omnibus bill is a year-end spending package that needs to be passed by Dec. 11 to keep the government from shutting down. Ms. Gillibrand said supporters have suggested several ways to pay for the 9/11 funding that have bipartisan support.
“It’s just a choice; it’s a question of will and a question of urgency,” she said.
Mr. Stewart said it should not take such extensive lobbying for first responders to get what is owed them from the government.
“These guys should never have to come down here again,” he said, joking that the press conference was “the most boring thing I’ve ever been in.”
“So this is it, this will be the final one,” he added. “The next [press conference] will be a celebration of your country finally doing the right thing.”