Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
On the frenzied final day of session for the 111th Congress, the Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday authorizing a new federally sponsored health benefits program for first responders who participated in rescue and recovery efforts following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Later in the day, the House quickly passed the measure on a vote of 206 to 60 and sent it to President Obama for his signature.
In the nine years since the attacks, hundreds of rescue workers who responded to Ground Zero have become ill or even died from serious respiratory problems. Health professionals have testified to Congress that the illnesses are related to the toxic dust that hovered over the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in lower Manhattan.
A similar bill has passed in the House in September, but it was blocked in the Senate for months by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and others who argued that the program would worsen the federal deficit and could be vulnerable to fraud and abuse.
"Every member of this chamber, Republicans and Democrats, want to do what's right for the first responders who may have been injured after 9-11," DeMint said Wednesday. "But we owe it to the American people to be accountable to how we spend money. Certainly it's worth a few weeks of committee hearings and understanding exactly how to spend taxpayer money effectively."
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's sponsors along Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said the bill had not been rushed, as Republicans like DeMint said, and added that the bill would require no taxpayer money.
"Let me assure you, we have been working on this bill for nine years," she said. "There have been 22 hearings on this bill, 21 in the House and one in the Senate . . . And unlike so many pieces of legislation in Washington, this bill is fully paid for."
Gillibrand and Schumer mounted an aggressive effort in the last 48 hours to get Coburn's support. They trimmed the overall cost of the bill from $7.4 billion to $4.2 billion and changed the funding mechanism approved by the House from closing tax loopholes, which does not generate revenue, to creating a 2-percent excise fee on foreign companies receiving U.S. government contracts that will pay for nearly all of the program.
They also shortened the length of the authorization from eight years to five and agreed to changes in the bill related to attorneys' fees and worker benefits that Coburn said could have opened the program up to fraud and abuse.
"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 after he reached the deal with the New York senators. "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."