Bipartisan deal pushes 9/11 healthcare bill through Congress

In the final vote of the 111th Congress, House lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation providing billions of dollars in healthcare services for the rescue workers who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City.

The tally was 206-60, with 168 lawmakers missing the vote. Fifty-nine Republicans and one Democrat voted against the bill.

Although the House passed similar legislation in September, that bill hit a buzz-saw of criticism in the Senate, where GOP lawmakers objected to the $7.4 billion price tag and the proposed offsets. 

After weeks of haggling in the upper chamber, the Democratic sponsors — New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — struck an eleventh-hour agreement Wednesday with Republican opponents, most notably Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who had threatened to prevent the proposal from reaching the floor in time for passage. 

The passage of the bill is a major victory for Schumer and Gillibrand, who have worked feverishly in recent days to set up a health benefits program for the firefighters, police officers and construction workers who rushed to the smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and worked at the site in the following months. 

“The Christmas miracle we’ve been looking for has arrived," Schumer said in a statement Wednesday. "Over the last 24 hours, our Republican colleagues have negotiated in good faith to forge a workable final package that will protect the health of the men and women who selflessly answered our nation’s call in her hour of greatest need.

“We thank our Republican friends for coming together to fulfill America’s moral obligation to the heroes of 9/11,” Schumer added.

The bipartisan deal cut funding to $4.3 billion while reducing the window of eligibility from eight years to five. The legislation is largely paid for by imposing a 2 percent fee on companies based in countries that have not signed a government procurement agreement with the United States.

Coburn touted the compromise.

“I’m pleased the sponsors of this bill agreed to lower costs dramatically, offset the bill, sunset key provisions and take steps to prevent fraud,” Coburn said in a statement. 

“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,” he added. “I’m pleased this agreement strikes a fair balance and improves the bill the majority attempted to rush through at the last minute."

The Senate passed the bill unanimously Wednesday, just hours before the House vote. The legislation now moves to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it into law. 

Sponsored by New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D) and Jerrold Nadler (D), the proposal bill will create a multibillion-dollar federal healthcare benefits program for the emergency and cleanup workers who responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Supporters said it's the least Congress can do to reward the heroics of those who risked their health in responding to the tragedy.

Many of the first responders and cleanup workers were exposed to toxic substances that erupted into the atmosphere when the towers collapsed. The health benefits program will also help residents in the immediate surrounding area who came down with illnesses after the attack.

"When we pass this bill, we will answer the question of whether the United States honors its heroes," Nadler said prior to the vote.

"This bill will save lives," Maloney said. "It's taken too long, but help finally is here." 

A number of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opposed the offset provisions of the bill without weighing in on the broader legislation. A number of Republicans cited the offsets when explaining their opposition.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said the 2 percent fee on businesses is "illogical and dangerous" to American companies hoping to do business abroad.

"There is no reason," Brady said, "that other countries wouldn't copy this tax and impose it on our U.S. companies that are competing overseas to sell goods and services."

The House vote marks the last of the 111th Congress. House lawmakers had floated the idea of also voting Wednesday on a contentious resolution officially labeling as genocide the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Turkish soldiers in the years surrounding World War I. 

That non-binding resolution was supported by House Democratic leaders — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) — but the White House had opposed the measure, fearing it would stir unnecessary animosity from Turkish leaders in the midst of a war in neighboring Iraq.

This article has been updated.