Senate Democrats say that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is single-handedly blocking a bill to help 9/11 first responders from being included in the long-term highway bill, which was unveiled today and is expected to pass as soon as this week.
The bill, called the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, would reauthorize an expiring health care program for 9/11 first responders permanently, while at the same time reauthorizing a victims compensation fund for five years, aides say.
But aides familiar with the negotiations say that Senator McConnell asked that the highway bill also lift the US ban on oil exports, and when that was not agreed to he stopped the Zadroga Act from being included in the five-year highway legislation.
“I believe that Senator McConnell was using this as a negotiating position—give us something, we’ll give you help for the 9/11 rescue workers,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters, “And in the end he was the one, Senator Schumer and Gillibrand ticked off every box of every potential opponent, Democrat, Republican, House and Senate, and it all came down to one box at the bottom: Mitch McConnell. He stopped it.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says an agreement on the Zadroga Act has been “done for weeks,” and that he was “surprised” when he was told it would not be included in the Highway Bill.
“It was done, it’s been done for weeks,” Reid told reporters, “It was supposed to be in the Highway Bill, quite frankly I was surprised yesterday when I was told by Senator McConnell that it wasn’t going to be in the Highway Bill, I was really quite surprised.”
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“It’s not in the bill and I’m disappointed,” Reid said, “It’s something that these people deserve. And I was told, well, we’re going to do it on the Omnibus, and now I was told later in the day that they want to do it on the tax extenders.”
But Senator McConnell’s office denies the Majority Leader is blocking anything, saying “There’s still no final bill to object to,” and claiming that Senator Durbin is “misinformed.”
“The questions of duration and payfors are still being worked out,” McConnell Spokesman Don Stewart told NBC News, “But members on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the building are working on wrapping that up.”
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD) said the exclusion of the Zadroga Act from the highway bill was not as a result of “any specific individual that was blocking,” but instead said “there were a lot of attempts to add some of these extraneous items to (the highway bill), but I think for the most part conferees try to keep it as much as possible confined to transportation priorities.”
“The 9/11 responders issue will be addressed, everybody knows that, it will have a lot of bipartisan support,” Thune said.
The bill has the support of former ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart, who was on Capitol Hill in September lobbying members of Congress to reauthorize the programs for 9/11 first responders.
“It’s the least the we can do. it’s literally the least that we can do,” Stewart said at the time of the Zadroga Act, “That they don’t have to be insecure about the medicine they are going to need to treat illnesses that have been scientifically shown – doctors here – and studies have shown links to 9/11.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told NBC News on Tuesday that the bill is still a priority.
“We have not decided what vehicle it will be or what funding level but it is something we do intend to get done by the end of the year,” Ryan said.
There are two components to the legislation. One is to fully fund the healthcare of those workers who served on "The Pile" at Ground Zero. The other is a continuation of the 9/11 victims compensation fund.
A possible compromise would to fully fund the health care and then sunset the compensation fund at some point, which could assuage the concerns of some conservatives worried about the creation of a new entitlement program.
NBC's Luke Russert contributed.