After emotional testimony from 9/11 responders, House panel votes to replenish victim fund
WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in support of a bill that would give fresh money to a compensation fund for those who are sick or dying from illnesses linked to their work amid the toxic debris at 9/11 attack sites.
The vote comes a day after an emotional hearing in which ailing first responders and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart lambasted lawmakers’ inaction on the issue.
Anger and frustration over the fund have been growing since February, when it was announced that future payouts will be cut as much as 70 percent to offset surging claims from those who are ill and the families of those who have died.
Lawmakers said they expect a full House vote next month. The bill is expected to pass easily in the House, but its prospects are less certain in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., implored his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to bring the bill to a vote as soon as possible.
“We will reach the point soon, most likely this year, when more will have died from 9/11-related illnesses than on 9/11 itself,” Schumer said Wednesday. “I say to Leader McConnell: this is not politics. This is not a game. These are our heroes, American heroes, who are suffering and need our help … . I am imploring, pleading, even begging to Leader McConnell, to put the bill on the floor immediately after it passes the House.”
The new bill would extend the program for decades, though a total cost is not yet clear.
The fund was opened by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for deaths and illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., after terrorists crashed four hijacked airliners on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The $7.3 billion fund has paid about $5 billion to roughly 21,000 claimants. About 700 were for deaths that occurred long after the attacks.
With more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims, the fund is running out of money, and under current law it is scheduled to stop taking claims in December 2020.
Stewart won renewed attention for the cause of the sick and dying workers when he testified Tuesday, angrily telling lawmakers they “should be ashamed” for how they have failed to act to extend the program so that those who are sick no longer have to beg for help.
“Al-Qaeda didn’t shout death to Tribeca — they attacked America, and these men and women and their response to it is what brought our country back,” he said.
“They did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility,” Stewart said, fighting back tears. “Eighteen years later, do yours!”