Thursday, December 09, 2010
9/11 Health Bill Blocked in Senate - NYTimes.com
WASHINGTON — Republican senators blocked Democratic legislation on Thursday that sought to provide medical care to rescue workers and residents of New York City who became ill as a result of breathing in toxic fumes, dust and smoke from ground zero.
The 9/11 health bill, a version of which was approved by the House of Representatives in September, is among a handful of initiatives that Senate Democrats had been hoping to approve this year before the close of the 111th Congress. Supporters believe this is their last real opportunity to have the bill passed.
The Senate action created huge uncertainty over the future of the bill. Its proponents were working on Thursday to have the legislation inserted into a large tax-cut bill that Republicans and Democrats are trying to pass before Congress ends it current session later this month.
But whether that happens is in part up to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. The bill’s backers are counting on Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a top Reid deputy and a supporter of the bill, to persuade Mr. Reid to go along with that idea.
Such a move might complicate passage of the tax package, which includes another provision that Democrats, including President Obama, sought in return for supporting tax cuts Republicans wanted: an extension of unemployment benefits for jobless Americans.
In a vote largely along party lines, the Senate rejected a procedural move by Democrats to end debate on the 9/11 health bill and bring it to an up-or-down vote; 60 yes votes were needed, but the move received only 57, with 42 votes against.
Republicans have been raising concerns about how to pay for the $7.4 billion measure, while Democrats, led by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, have argued that the nation had a moral obligation to assist those who put their lives at risk during rescue operations at ground zero.
The bill is formally known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named after a New York Police Department detective who participated in the rescue efforts at ground zero. He later developed breathing complications that were common to first responders at the site, and he died in January 2006.
After the vote, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a chief sponsor of the bill in the House, urged Senate Democrats to include the 9/11 health bill in the larger tax-cut legislation to, in effect, dare Republicans to oppose it in that context.
“The Zadroga Act must be added to the tax cut bill, which is the one measure the Senate Republicans won’t leave this town without passing,” she said.
In a statement released by his office after the vote, Mr. Reid gave no indication of whether he would insert the 9/11 measure in the tax bill Republicans are seeking. But he attacked Republican senators for what he described as misplaced priorities.
“Republicans denied adequate health care to the heroes who developed illnesses from rushing into burning buildings on 9/11,” he said. “Yet they will stop at nothing to give tax breaks to millionaires and C.E.O.’s, even though they will explode our deficit and fail to create jobs. That tells you everything you need to know about their priorities.”
The vote was a blow to the bill’s sponsors, who mobilized a network of allies across the political spectrum to lobby on behalf of it, including the New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Ms. Gillibrand, the chief sponsor in the Senate, even reached out to former President George W. Bush. But her aides say Mr. Bush did not respond to her entreaties.
In a statement, Mr. Bloomberg chastised Senate Republicans for their “wrong-headed political strategy” and called on them to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. “The attacks of 9/11 were attacks on America,” he said, “and we have a collective responsibility to care for the heroes — from all 50 states — who answered the call of duty, saved lives, and helped our nation recover.”
The bill calls for providing $3.2 billion over the next eight years to monitor and treat injuries stemming from exposure to toxic dust and debris at ground zero. New York City would pay 10 percent of those health costs.
The bill would also set aside $4.2 billion to reopen the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to provide compensation for job and economic losses.
In addition, the bill includes a provision that would allow money from the Victim Compensation Fund to be paid to any eligible claimant who receives a payment under the settlement of lawsuits that 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers recently reached with the city. Now, those who receive a settlement from the city are limited in how much compensation they can get from the fund, according to the bill’s sponsors.
There are nearly 60,000 people enrolled in health monitoring and treatment programs related to the 9/11 attacks, according to the sponsors of the bill. The federal government provides the bulk of the money for those programs.
If the bill is not adopted by the current Congress, its supporters will have start over again next year. With Republicans set to take over the House, passing the bill in that chamber will be extremely difficult, the bill’s supporters say. That is a large part of the reason backers of the measure are pleading with Senate leaders to get it passed by this Congress.