TWO REPUBLICANS PICK A NEW TARGET: THE 9/11 VICTIMS FUND
A bill that would compensate first responders and survivors of the September 11 terrorist attacks who have since fallen ill from the toxins and chemicals they inhaled at the site has been blocked in the Senate by Rand Paul and Mike Lee.
Utah Senator Mike Lee placed a procedural hold on the extension of the 9/11 compensation fund Wednesday, blocking it from coming to a floor vote. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand responded by asking for unanimous consent to pass the compensation bill, which would override Lee’s temporary block of the bill. But by voting in the negative, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul ended the motion to unanimously pass the bill, which has significant nonpartisan support. Lee contends that there’s still time to get an amended version of the bill passed before the August recess begins.
“I reserve the right to object,” said Paul. “It has long been my feeling that we need to address our massive debt in this country—we have a $22 trillion debt, [and] we’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year—and therefore any new spending that we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have longevity of 70, 80 years, should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable.”
It should probably be noted that Paul voted in favor of President Donald Trump’s $1.2 trillion tax cut plan.
Back on the floor, Paul then said he’d consider the bill with an amendment to offset spending once it came to the floor.
“I am deeply disappointed that my colleague has just objected to the desperately needed and urgent bill for our 9/11 first responders,” said Gillibrand on Twitter. “Enough with the political games.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the floor to directly address Paul and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
“You can come up with 10,000 reasons not to do something. But you shouldn't come up with any reason why not to do something noble and right,” he said. “I would urge my friend from Kentucky to withdraw his objection. I would urge my friend, Senator McConnell, the Leader, to put it on the floor now. And we can let these folks in the gallery and so many others do what they need to do—help their families, help their friends, and make sure their health is given the best, best protection possible.”
Since 9/11, there have been more than 2,077 certified cancer conditions in firefighters caused by the toxins breathed in on September 11 and afterward. In total, there have been 9,300 registered cancer conditions related to the aftermath. More people have now died because of toxins breathed in at ground zero sites than did during the September 11 attacks.
The Victim Compensation Fund was passed by Congress in 2011 to help offset costs for those affected by the fires and dangerous air from the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville attacks and was renewed with additional funding in 2015.
The current extension of the bill, which passed the House with a vote of 402-12, would permanently fund payments for first responders, their families and other affected survivors of the attacks.
The legislation is expected to cost about $10.2 billion over the next decade. This February, the fund’s special master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced that more claims were coming in than the fund could answer and that future payouts would be reduced by 50 to 70 percent without the extension.
Immediately following the September 11 attacks EPA administrator Christine Whitman declared the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe. She later admitted she was wrong and “feels awful” about it.
“I’m very sorry that people are sick,” she told The Guardian in 2016. “I’m very sorry that people are dying and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry. We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”
New York Representative Carolyn Maloney said last week that the responders deserved compensation largely because of “the toxic lie our government told [first responders], that it was safe to work on the site when it clearly was not and because of their exposure to toxins, many of them have cancers and are sick and dying.”
McConnell has attempted to block funding for the bill in the past, but initially seemed more open to it this time around. "Gosh, I hadn't looked at that lately. I'll have to. We've always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again," he commented to reporters last month.
Firefighters who were outside of the Senate said they were turned away by Senator Mike Lee’s staff when they attempted to speak to him about his decision to block the bill. Lee still made time for his “Jell-O Wednesday” event in Washington D.C. this afternoon.
Nicole Goodkind is a political reporter at Newsweek. You can reach her on Twitter @NicoleGoodkind or by email, N.Goodkind@newsweek.com.