House approves health coverage for 9/11 emergency workers

The House on Wednesday passed legislation to cover the healthcare costs for rescue workers sickened by the toxins stirred up during the 9/11 attacks on New York.

The tally was 268 to 160, with 17 Republicans supporting the measure and 3 Democrats voting against it.

It was the second time the House has considered the measure this year. In July, the bill won an easy House majority — 255 to 159. But under the rules of that vote, the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass. Wednesday's vote required just a simple majority.

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House passage followed months of contentious debate over whether the federal government has an obligation to pay emergency workers sickened by the smoke, debris and toxic fumes caused by the attacks of 9/11. Democrats have argued that treating those workers is the least the country can do to compensate their service following the disaster.

"Let's not have any more people die because of the attacks of 9/11," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's chief sponsors, said Wednesday.

Most Republicans, though, say the $7.4 billion proposal creates a new entitlement program that largely favors New York at the expense of taxpayers elsewhere in the country. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) accused supporters of "irresponsible overreach" that will empower a "massive and expensive compensation system."

"There is no excuse for this kind of legislation," Smith said.

Sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the proposal would dedicate up to $3.5 billion to create a new federal health benefits program for the emergency and cleanup workers who responded to the 9/11 attacks on New York City's World Trade Center. The funding would cover treatments, but also medical monitoring, for those workers.

It would also allocate up to $8.2 billion to reopen a 9/11 victim compensation fund to provide death and injury payments to eligible claimants — a provision that sunsets in 2032. 


The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will cost $7.4 billion over the next decade — an expense fully offset by tweaking tax law to end certain breaks for foreign-based corporate subsidiaries operating in the U.S.

An alternative proposal offered by GOP leaders — representing their attempt to kill the underlying bill — was shot down. The GOP's version would have scaled back the funding for worker treatments, and paid the tab by cutting benefits out of the new health reform bill. It failed 185 to 244, largely along party lines.

Supporters of the Democrats' bill have been quick to note that both the cost and coverage windows are capped, and emphasized that the bill is fully paid for. They also reject the argument that bill represents a slush fund for New York. 

"This is not a New York issue," Maloney said prior to the vote. "Our nation was attacked, and those who are suffering some from all 50 states." 

She said later, "This is not an entitlement, it's a responsibility."

The bill was threatened briefly this week when Republicans vowed to attach an amendment preventing illegal immigrants from receiving any benefits — a thorny issue among Hispanic Democrats opposed to such an exemption and moderates who didn't want to touch it so close to November's midterms. 

Democrats evaded the potential pitfall Wednesday morning, when the leaders of the House Rules Committee prohibited amendments to the bill. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted after the vote that passage was "right, fair and just for 9/11 heroes."

This post was updated at 4:00 p.m.