NY Post - December 23, 2010by GEOFF EARLE, Post Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- After years of delay and a dramatic 11th-hour compromise, Congress yesterday passed legislation to provide $4.3 billion in aid to 9/11 first responders who have been battling illnesses suffered after their service at Ground Zero in the months after the terror attacks.
The final deal was reached after high-stakes meetings between Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who went toe-to-toe with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- who had threatened to stall the bill until lawmakers were due to leave for Christmas, dealing it a potential death blow.
The lawmakers' accord shaved $2 billion off the bill's cost, clearing the way for the last major action of the lame duck Democratic Congress.
"We knew that the clock was running out," said Schumer, who helped orchestrate end-game talks between a group of Republican senators, the New Yorkers, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Despite years of gridlock, the deal cruised through the Senate on a voice vote -- without even requiring a formal tally, within hours after the accord was reached.
The House passed the bill on a 206-60 vote about two hours after the Senate cleared it.
"The Senate recognized that 9/11 was not just an attack on New York but an attack on America, and that those who responded and died or succumbed to illness afterward did so in service to the nation," said NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Gillibrand praised the final product, as well as the good faith of Republicans threatening to kill it. "They wanted to make the bill better," she said.
And she praised the army of first responders who lobbied for final passage, using bare-knuckles tactics like trying to pack into GOP senators' offices to gain support.
"They never stopped. They never wavered. They never had any concern for themselves," she said.
"The Christmas miracle we've been looking for has arrived," Schumer and Gillibrand said in a statement.
Coburn, the most outspoken of those threatening to play the part of Grinch, put out a seven-page paper outlining his problems with the bill, which he worried would be a waste of money as written.
"Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity," Coburn said yesterday. "This agreement strikes a fair balance."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) apparently didn't get the memo on praising his opponents, whom he called "cruel-hearted" at a press event after Senate passage with first responders.
The new program sets up a new World Trade Center health program, to be administered by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, to monitor responders' health.
To lower the cost, lawmakers cut the deal to a five-year authorization from eight years in the earlier version. But Schumer said it was "damned sure" he would push to extend it when it expires.
The final bill includes $1.5 billion for first responders' health costs, and $2.7 billion to reopen the Victims Compensation Fund set up after the attack. But the bill officially closes the fund after five years, at the insistence of GOP senators.
"We didn't get everything we wanted, but always remember legislation is the art of compromise. This is $4.3 billion better than nothing," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
At Coburn's insistence, the deal also includes language intended to tighten the caps on attorney's fees for lawyers representing claims against the fund, with fees capped at 10 percent.
Doctors who provide care to first responders will get reimbursed at 140 percent of Medicare reimbursement rates, settling another stumbling block.
First responders can go to the program, starting this summer, to receive monitoring of their medical condition.
Provided their condition is on a list of covered illnesses, responders can get treatment if exposure to toxins and other hazards after the attacks is "substantially likely to be a significant factor in aggravating, contributing to, or causing" their illness.
The program then pays for medically necessary treatment based on an existing federal scale. The bill sets a cap of 25,000 additional responders who could get covered, in addition to the 55,000 who are already enrolled in monitoring or are sick and getting care.
The program is paid for by a fee on foreign firms that get government procurement visas, and an extension of fees on firms that rely on H-1B and other visas for foreign workers.
The House, which had already passed the bill, passed the new scaled-back version not long after the Senate acted yesterday afternoon, by a vote of 206-60. Many of the 435 members of the House didn't come to DC for the final legislative vote of the session.
"It's the right thing to do, and it's the right time to do it," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan).
President Obama says he is eager to sign the bill, and his administration endorsed it before earlier House and Senate votes, though he got criticized for not doing more to push for final action.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has been lobbying in New York and Washington on behalf of the legislation, lauded its bipartisan passage last night.
"As we look forward to the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I am encouraged that our elected representatives in Washington came together and stood by those who were there for America in its hour of greatest need," said Bloomberg.
The legislation is named for James Zadroga, a police detective who died at age 34. His family says he died from respiratory disease as a result of working at Ground Zero, but the city's medical examiner ruled that his death was the result of prescription-drug abuse.