Could Congress Give 9/11 First Responders the Shaft?
Policy + Politics

Could Congress Give 9/11 First Responders the Shaft?

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A year-end push by congressional lawmakers to finish all outstanding business threatens to leave behind a multibillion-dollar bill that would extend health and compensation benefits for 9/11 first responders.

The legislation, known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, provides health monitoring, compensation and treatment to roughly 70,000 emergency personnel and survivors affected by the 2001 attacks, according a website promoting the law.

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Last month the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion to renew the program through 2025. Parts of the measure, last renewed in 2010, began to expire in October, prompting lawmakers and celebrities like former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to beat the drum for its renewal.

But the bipartisan effort, already complicated by competing versions of the legislation, received a serious setback on Tuesday when the program was left out of a five-year, $305 billion transportation bill.

The move left Senate Democrats fuming.

The reauthorization was “supposed to be on the highway bill,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said during a Capitol Hill press conference. “It's something that these people deserve.”

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Reid said he had been told by Republicans that the legislation would be part of a yet-to-be-unveiled $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government beyond Dec. 11, and then was told later in the day that it would instead be added to a grab bag of tax breaks Congress approves every year. “So, I don't know what their 9/11 idea of the day is. I should say, the hour.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters on Tuesday that New York Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) “ticked off every box of every potential opponent, Democrat, Republican, House and Senate, and it all came down to one box at the bottom: Mitch McConnell. He stopped it.”

McConnell’s office pushed back against the accusations.

“There is no final bill. But members on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the building are working on wrapping that up,” spokesman Don Stewart told The Fiscal Times in an email, adding that the length of the Zadroga Act renewal and how to pay for it were still being worked out.

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The bill promoted by Schumer and Gillibrand — and New York Reps. Peter King (R) and Carolyn Maloney (D) in the House — would permanently renew the law. It would be paid for by closing a loophole that allows foreign insurance companies to provide reinsurance in the United States without paying the same tax rate as their U.S. competitors.

The measure’s backers estimate closing the loophole would generate $9.3 billion in revenue, putting it within the price range projected by CBO. The proposal has 67 cosponsors in the Senate, seven more than necessary to overcome a filibuster, and 257 in the House, well over the 218 needed for passage.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), whose panel has jurisdiction, has a proposal to reauthorize the program for five years at a cost of $3.8 billion. The price tag would be covered by using funds seized via economic sanctions on countries like Iran and Cuba.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) signaled he wants to get a deal done before Congress heads home for the year, but declined to take sides on which approach is best or if he preferred the law to be tacked onto the must-pass omnibus funding bill or receive its own standalone vote.

"We have not decided what vehicle it will be or what funding level but it is something that we do intend on getting done by the end of the year," he said during a press conference.