Senate Extends 9/11 Responders Fund Until 2090

Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart speaks at a news conference on behalf of 9/11 victims and families on July 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthew Daly)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate voted Tuesday to extend through 2090 a fund that makes payouts to first responders who developed diseases after working at the sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The fund, called the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, has been running out of money as more and more emergency personnel and victims of the attacks fell ill after coming into contact with toxic chemicals at the sites of the terror attacks.

The bill the Senate passed 97-2 on Tuesday will extend the program through 2092 and give people until 2090 to file claims.

The Congressional Budget Office expects the fund to run up a more than $10 billion price tag over the next decade. To date, 95,000 people have made claims under the program, 80% of whom are first responders, according to the CBO.

A report from earlier this month acknowledged the exact price tag is difficult to pin down in part because it is unclear how much more likely people who were at the sites of the attacks are to develop cancer. The report also said it is difficult to estimate the population that might make claims under the fund.

Reauthorizing the fund has long been delayed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., committed earlier this year to holding a vote on the bill.

At a meeting held earlier on the same afternoon as the U.S. Senate vote, the New York City Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution encouraging Congress to renew the bill.

In his opening remarks, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson took a full 12 minutes to read aloud the names of each of the 200 FDNY first responders who have died of a 9/11-related illness since the day the towers fell.

“It is cruel, it is deeply cruel, to make people who are sick from 9/11-related illnesses beg [for compensation] every couple of years,” Johnson said. “We must not retraumatize these survivors or make them anxious by having them wonder, will the U.S. government step up to support them?”

Kimberly Flynn, chair of the World Trade Center Health Program Survivors Steering Committee, testified Monday before the New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor. She said survivors of the attacks, as well as first responders, are seeing “rare” and “unusually aggressive” cancers that arrive earlier in life and are more common than they should be.

“Though 9/11 illnesses and deaths among survivors are not in the headlines,” Flynn said, “the survivor community is suffering as well.”

“This toxic legacy is not just the result of 9/11, but also a direct result of the federal government’s failure to protect the health of New Yorkers,” she told the committee.

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart has been a prominent champion of the legislation and was on Capitol Hill Tuesday as the bill neared passage.

The former “Daily Show” host watched the vote from the chamber and stood and applauded when it was clear the measure had the votes to pass. Leaning forward in his chair in the gallery, he nodded along as a clerk read of the name of each senator who voted in favor of the bill.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised the efforts of advocates in bringing the bill to passage.

“We’re just so glad that we’re at the very end of this long, long travail that will recognize the needs of these beautiful, wonderful, brave first responders,” Schumer told reporters.

Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah each attempted to alter the bill just before it passed, with both Republicans expressing concerns about the bill’s additions to the national debt. Paul blocked the bill from coming up for a vote last week and on Tuesday offered an amendment that would have offset the spending for the 9/11 program with cuts to other areas of the budget.

Lee’s amendment would have given the fund $10.2 billion to spend over the next 10 years and an additional $10 billion for the remainder of its life, rather than the limitless amount allowed for in the bill the Senate passed.

Senators defeated both Lee and Paul’s amendments with bipartisan majorities before passing the final reauthorization legislation.

The bill now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign the legislation. The House passed the bill 402-12 on July 12.

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