As its last major piece of legislation before the holiday adjournment, Congress passed legislation on Wednesday to provide $4.2 billion in new aid to 9/11 first responders.
The bulk of the money, some $2.7 billion over a 10-year period, will go to compensate the police officers, firefighters, EMT workers, and construction workers who pulled debris from the smoldering ruins at ground zero. Many of those people are now unable to work because of debilitating illnesses.
The remaining $1.5 billion will be used for health monitoring and treatment.
President Obama has said he will sign the legislation.
On Monday, supporters of the bill said they had secured the votes to get it passed. But they were concerned about the timing, because the Senate’s first priority was to pass the nuclear-arms treaty. The window was closing for the bill to pass in this session.
The legislation itself posed hurdles for some lawmakers. Republicans were concerned about the cost, which was earlier estimated to be $6.2 billion. Also, some Republicans considered the legislation an “entitlement program” for New York. New York Rep. Peter King, a supporter of the legislation and a Republican, said at a New York press conference Monday, “There is a lot of anti-New York feeling in Congress.”
But probably the most publicity came from Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show,” which made fun of Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming, who was vocal in opposing the legislation. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, he called the legislation “flawed.”
To pay for the legislation, the Senate will tack a 2 percent excise tax on foreign companies that win US government contracts, in cases when the companies are located in nations that are not parties to the Agreement on Government Procurement. (That agreement specifies openness and nondiscrimination in government contracts.) In addition, the Senate will extend a fee on H-1B and L-1 visas, which foreign-based companies apply for to bring workers to the United States.
According to Representative King, the new bill will reduce the US budget deficit by $450 million over 10 years because the fees collected will exceed the legislation’s cost.
In another effort to rein in costs, the legislative compromise closes in 2016 the victims’ compensation fund – a government-funded $1 billion insurance pool to pay for health care and compensation. The original bill kept the fund open until 2031. According to Senator Coburn, the later date made it “susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse and incurring long-term costs.”
It is unclear how the legislation affects 71,000 people, many living in the area, who have registered as having been affected by the 9/11 attacks. Under the original bill, they would have been eligible for health monitoring and treatment. But an aide to Coburn says he is 99 percent certain that the compromise legislation applies only to first responders.
As lawmakers considered the legislation, another Republican concern that came out had to do with excessive trial-lawyer fees. The compromise bill sets a hard cap for lawyer fees at 10 percent of the total award and allows a special master to reduce attorney fees considered excessive. In addition, the legislation bars claimants who are rejected by the victims’ compensation fund from pursuing a civil lawsuit.
This is not the first time the US Congress has voted to compensate civilians. In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Congress passed the War Hazards Compensation Act of 1942, which provided health care and financial relief to civilians who helped to recover the dead and salvage the Pacific fleet.
“In passing the Zadroga Act, Congress has once again demonstrated that our nation will not abandon those harmed by an attack on our shores,” said one of the sponsors, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York, in a statement.