This time, Congress actually may be answering the call of ailing 9/11 responders and others who are still getting sick and dying 18 years after hijackers perpetrated the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
A bill that would permanently extend the expiring 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund has just surpassed the number of backers it needs to pass in the House of Representatives, according to an announcement by the bill’s three lead sponsors.
Legislation needs 218 votes to pass in the House, the new bill, know formally as the Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act, notched its 226th cosponsor on Friday.
“We’re incredibly proud that a majority of the House believes we must fulfill our promise to ‘Never Forget’ those harmed by 9/11 and we’re not done yet,” said a joint statement by the bill’s author, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and it two lead cosponsors, Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
The 9/11 health program was made permanent in 2015, after responders lobbied Congress intensively, often traveling to Washington with wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and supplies of medicine to help them cope with — in some cases — fatal illnesses. Congress had to be shamed into acting, finally passing legislation at the end of the year. Some of those men and women have since died.
But the compensation fund, which aids the families of those who die and helps pay bills for those too sick to work, was only extended until 2020. It also has already paid out most of the $7.4 billion that was allocated for it.
The special master who administers the fund announced in February that pending claims would be cut by half and new ones by 70%, compared to the payouts before, even before they go to zero in 2020.
Passing the milestone half-way mark of supporters in the House suggests that for once the push to pass a new 9/11 bill may not be as hard as the previous versions.
“This is nothing like the last time where we had to fight and struggle for every vote,” said King.
Still, responders have not been leaving it to chance, and have already made numerous trips to Capitol Hill, visiting hundreds of lawmakers.
The big change from previous years is the support of many Republicans, who were reluctant to back a bill many saw as primarily helping New York.
King said part of the change was from growing awareness of both the nationwide nature of the need and the effectiveness of the 9/11 programs.
Americans from 434 out of 435 congressional districts responded to the strikes at the time, and there are people from every state now who are in both the 9/11 treatment and compensation programs.
During debates over the previous 9/11 bills, many Republicans raised objections that it would just be for the metropolitan area, and that it would be ripe for fraud and abuse. But it has proven otherwise.
“It’s been in effect so long, and there’s been no examples of any abuse, which is really unusual for a government program,” King said.
And he noted that Congress has now seen the impacts of the emerging illnesses which advocates had long predicted.
“They see there are a growing number of people who have gotten sick, who are out of work permanently, or who have died,” King said. “This is a legitimate cause, this is not just something that we were imagining at the time was going to be that bad — it is.”
The surge of support has attracted first-time sponsors like Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who were among the recent signers to push the bill over the halfway mark. King said high-profile conservatives such as Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) have spurred momentum. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has also attracted conservative attention in the Senate, although the bill still remains well short of the 60 backers that would guarantee success there.
King felt so upbeat about the prospects that he thought the bill could pass the House on what’s known as the suspension calendar, where noncontroversial bills are passed on a two-thirds vote with little debate required.
“I would say right now things look very good. I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be able to pass on suspension,” King said. “I don’t see any serious number at all opposing it or raising any serious objection to it.”
Whatever the motivation, the three leaders of the bill credit responders.
“We could never have reached this milestone without the countless hours spent by first responders, survivors, and family members of victims advocating for this bill and the VCF program,” the three said. “These men and women, many of whom are suffering from 9/11-related diseases, are heroes and we are eternally grateful for all they are doing on behalf of the tens of thousands of people from all over the country that they represent. We cannot let them down.”