Families of Sept. 11 victims held hands and wept Tuesday after the House voted to overhaul intelligence agencies to better protect the nation from future terror attacks. The families watched anxiously from the gallery seats as House members voted on reforms the activist families had been urging for more than three years as part of the Family Steering Committee.
When it was over, relatives of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spilled out of the chamber red-eyed, overwhelmed with relief.
Bill Harvey, a New Yorker whose wife was killed at the World Trade Center a month after the couple wed, said the victorious vote was also a sad reminder of what was lost.
"The vote took 15 minutes, and it was pretty emotional. I thought about her during the 15 minutes of the vote," Harvey said.
"We really feel that we made a contribution so that other families won't have to suffer," said Mary Fetchet, of New Canaan, Conn. Her 24-year-old son Brad also died at the trade center.
Several relatives hugged Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who has lent her time and office to the families' cause.
The bill, which passed 336 to 75, now heads to the Senate for a Wednesday vote, where it is expected to pass as well. It then heads to the White House to be signed into law by President Bush, who supports the measure.
One New York lawmaker, Rep. John Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, voted against the measure because language was stripped out of the bill that would have directed more aid to big cities such as New York at high risk of terror attacks.
He also wanted tougher language on immigration issues.
"I don't think anything in this bill would serve as an impediment to the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11," Sweeney said.
Families had believed a deal was reached Nov. 20 hammering out differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation, but the proposal foundered on objections from some key House Republicans over immigration and military command issues.
A new pact was announced late Monday to accommodate the concerns of House Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., propelling the bill toward a floor debate and vote.
After three years of public pressure, some family members could barely believe the long-sought day had apparently come.
"We've been holding our breath for so long, the only thing I can compare it to is being a Red Sox fan," said Carie Lemack of Boston, whose mother, Judy Larocque, died aboard American Airlines Flight 11.
"But the Red Sox won, too."
The still-grieving relatives are widely credited with forcing the government to act and change the way it manages espionage and information-sharing, after the commission found that the disparate agencies did not work well together or pass on critical clues that might have prevented the attacks.
Up to the last minute, the activist families worked the phones and prowled the halls of Congress, eager for any new scrap of information about the closed-door discussions leading up to the floor debate.
Not all the families agree the legislation should pass. Another group, Families for a Secure America, have opposed the bill unless it contains tougher language on immigration and standards for driver's licenses.
The leader of that group, Peter Gadiel of northern Connecticut, who lost his son James in the World Trade Center, has urged lawmakers not to settle for "only half a bill."
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