WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Friday to add billions of dollars to a dwindling compensation fund for 9/11 workers, in legislation honoring a former New York City police detective who had beseeched Congress to take care of those sick or dying after laboring in toxic debris sites.
The House voted 402 to 12 in favor of the legislation, which was amended days ago to honor Luis Alvarez, a New York Police Department first responder who told lawmakers on June 11: “You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t.”
He died less than three weeks later.
The legislation, which was supported by all House Democrats and almost all Republicans, now moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he aims to hold a vote by next month. McConnell’s commitment came after he was publicly attacked by Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” who lambasted lawmakers for dragging their feet to replenish the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Stewart, who has become the celebrity face of the effort to make the 9/11 fund permanent, was in Congress on Friday for the vote – calling it the “semifinals” – and pledged to return for the Senate vote, which could come in about two weeks.
“This is necessary, it is urgent, and it is morally right,” Stewart said, standing in a crowd of first responders and lawmakers.
In a statement, McConnell said the Senate “has never forgotten the Victim Compensation Fund and we aren’t about to start now. . . . We will consider this important legislation soon.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., urged a quick Senate vote. “We need to let these men and women get back to their lives and families. We need to show with our actions – not just our words – that we will never forget what these heroes did for our nation. We owe them nothing less.”
The fund provides money to those who have contracted diseases that have been linked to exposure to toxic debris in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers created the fund in 2011 to compensate for deaths and illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after terrorists crashed four hijacked airliners that morning in 2001. The $7.3 billion fund has paid about $5 billion to roughly 21,000 claimants. About 700 were for deaths that happened long after the attacks.
With more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims, the fund is running out of money. Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master overseeing the funds, announced that pending claims, including those that were received before Feb. 1, will be paid at 50 percent of their prior value. Subsequent claims are being paid at just 30 percent.
By law, the fund is scheduled to stop taking claims in December 2020. The new legislation would extend the program for seven decades, at an estimated cost of $10.2 billion for the first decade.
A searing congressional hearing last month refocused public attention on the plight of the sick workers and the faltering fund.
When he testified to lawmakers, Alvarez had endured 68 rounds of chemotherapy and was planning on another. Gaunt and frail, his words moved many in the hearing to tears.
His testimony was followed by an angry denunciation of Congress by Stewart, who decried what he called Congress’s lack of interest and inaction on such an important issue.
“It’s shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country,” Stewart said, fighting back tears.