The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to replenish and extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the culmination of a months-long battle to win relief for those who've grown ill or died from 9/11-related illnesses.
"We can never repay all that the 9/11 community has done for our country," comedian and advocate Jon Stewart said at a news conference celebrating the vote. "But we can stop penalizing them."
The bill, which passed by a 97-2 margin, all but made the Victim Compensation Fund permanent and permanently authorizes the fund to make payments to those who've died or fallen ill due to toxins breathed in at the World Trade Center. This bill will provide money for the program through 2092.
The legislation cleared the U.S. House of Representatives by a 402-12 vote earlier this month.
"97-2," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said at the news conference. "Righteousness — sometimes, sometimes, in this mangled town — sometimes prevails."
The vote was the culmination of a months-long battle waged by survivors, union leaders, elected officials, and advocates like Stewart. In February came news that the fund, which the Department of Justice oversees, was running low and payouts would be slashed, even as the number of lives claimed continued to grow. Officials for the fund said it was running out of money fast because there were more people discovering illnesses and filing claims than there was money to go around. Claim amounts have been reduced by as much as 70 percent in some cases so everyone can at least get something.
The vote was the culmination of a months-law battle waged by survivors, union leaders, elected officials, and advocates like comedian Jon Stewart. In February came news the fund was running low and payouts would be slashed, even as the number of lives claimed continued to grow, among them NYPD Detective Lou Alvarez, who died last month shortly after testifying on Capitol Hill.
Last month, Stewart, along with terminally ill first responder Luis Alvarez, spoke at a hearing on Capitol Hill and called for the bill to be funded permanently.
"They responded in five seconds," Stewart said at the hearing. "They did their jobs with courage, grace tenacity, humility. 18 years later, do yours!"
Alvarez, a former NYPD detective, entered hospice care just days after testifying. He died in late June.
Stewart honored several first responders after the bill was passed on Tuesday.
"Sadly, more will continue to get sick, and more will die," said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat.
The concerted lobbying effort led to overwhelming bipartisan victories in the House on July 12, and Tuesday in the Senate. The lone opposition came from Senators Mike Lee of Utah, who had sought to cap payments, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was concerned with deficit spending.
Before voting on the extension Tuesday, the Senate voted on two amendments, both of which failed. The amendments by Republicans Lee and Paul were added last week. Lee and Paul were the two no votes on the bill.
Last week, Paul blocked an attempt to gain unanimous consent to approve the bill on the Senate floor over his concerns about the deficit.
The bill's supporters had a message for the senators after the vote.
"Told you so. We whipped your a--es," 9/11 first responder John Feal said at the news conference.
Still, survivors and advocates said the victory was bittersweet and came mostly with a sense of relief.
"I thank those that are struggling to breathe on their couch," said Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association union for uniformed NYPD officers. "I thank their family members who are doing everything they can to try to help."
The bill is named in honor of three first responders who died after 9/11: New York City police detective James Zadroga, firefighter Ray Pfeifer, and Alvarez. Family members of all three men were in the Senate gallery for the final vote.
"Thank God it's done, it's passed, and hopefully, God, we never have to come back here again for this reason," said Joe Zadroga, James Zadroga's father.
The bill now goes to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature. He's expected to sign the legislation.