A bill to ensure that a fund to compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks doesn't run out of money passed a key hurdle in the House on Wednesday, prompting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to plead with his chamber's GOP leadership to take up the measure as soon as possible.
"We will reach the point soon, most likely this year, where more will have died from 9/11 related illnesses than from 9/11 itself," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "Let's take care of them. Now."
The New York Democrat noted it had been a battle to get the victim's fund off the ground initially, as well as to maintain it in the years since.
"After years of struggle we eventually passed a health care program, but initially it wasn't even permanent," Schumer said. "And we have to fight every time when there's a problem, every time we need an extension, every time it needs more funding. Every single one of those times those brave first responders have had to come here to testify, wheeling through the halls of Congress, their bodies riddled with cancer, to beg senators and congressman to help them get their health care."
"It's shameful," Schumer said, echoing comedian Jon Stewart, who has championed the legislation. "There's no other word for it."
The House committee's action came a day after Stewart ripped Congress' treatment of those who responded to the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
"They responded in five seconds. They did their jobs, with courage, grace, tenacity, humility. ... Eighteen years later, do yours!" Stewart told a House subcommittee.
Stewart testified after retired New York Police Department Detective Luis Alvarez, who is battling cancer and was set to undergo a 69th round of chemotherapy on Wednesday.
Schumer spoke minutes after the House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill, which would provide funding for 70 years, in a unanimous vote. He predicted the full House will pass the measure "soon."
"As soon as the House passes this bill, it should be on the floor of the Senate immediately as a stand-alone bill," Schumer said. "I am imploring, pleading and even begging to Leader McConnell to put this bill on the floor as soon as it passes the House."
If Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., does so, Schumer predicted the measure "would pass with bipartisan support, the president will sign it, and the brave first responders can breathe a sigh of relief."
Asked earlier Wednesday if he supported reauthorizing the fund — which is in danger of running out of money — McConnell told reporters: "Gosh, I hadn't looked at that lately. I'll have to. We've always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again."
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Wednesday that some members of Congress slowed down the process of passing the bill because they viewed it as a “New York issue” or said it was too costly. But Nadler said the whole country was attacked on 9/11, not just New York.
"This was an act of war," Nadler said. "These people are victims of the war that was created against us. And whatever it costs should be borne, as in any war."