WASHINGTON — Comedian Jon Stewart is scolding Congress for failing to ensure that a victims' compensation fund set up after the 9/11 attacks never runs out of money.
Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, angrily called out lawmakers for failing to attend Tuesday's hearing on a bill that would ensure the fund can pay benefits for the next 70 years.
"Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity — time! It's the one thing they're running out of," the former "Daily Show" host said.
"They responded (to the 9/11 attacks) in five seconds. They did their jobs, with courage, grace, tenacity, humility ... 18 years later, do yours!"
"I'm sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic, but I am angry ... and they're angry as well," Stewart said, pointing to the rows of first responders in the audience at the hearing. He noted that many members of Congress had pledged to "never forget the heroes of 9/11," only to drag their heels in providing money for their medical care, and even then with temporary funding.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted in support of Stewart and said he wanted to take names.
Stewart spoke at the hearing after an appearance by an ailing Luis Alvarez, a retired New York Police Department bomb squad detective who worked at Ground Zero after the fall of the Twin Towers.
"You all said you would never forget. Well, I'm here to make sure that you don't," Alvarez said.
"Less than 24 hours from now, I will be starting my 69th round of chemotherapy. Yeah, you heard that correct," Alvarez said. "I should not be here with you, but you made me come."
He said the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund had given him a fighting chance against cancer, and will be needed by others as well.
"My life isn’t worth more than the next responder to get cancer," he said.
Congress provided the fund with $7.4 billion to cover claims through December 2020. But as of February of this year, $5 billion has already been given to more than 20,000 survivors who've been stricken with cancer and respiratory diseases.
Stewart noted the attacks weren't a natural disaster.
"I'm awfully tired of hearing it's 9/11, a New York issue. Al Qaeda didn't shout death to Tribeca," he said, referring to a neighborhood in Manhattan. "They attacked America. And these men and women and their response to it is what brought our country back."
"You are ignoring them," he said.
Pointing to rows of empty seats at the House Judiciary Committee hearing room, Stewart said the "sick and dying" first responders and their families came to Washington for the hearing, only to face a nearly deserted dais.
"I can't help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to — behind me a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me a nearly empty Congress," he said. "Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak, to no one."
"It's shameful," he said.
The hearing, however, had not been slated to take place before the whole Judiciary Committee — it was being held before the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The subcommittee has 14 members, compared with the full committee, which has 41 members. Two of the 14 members, Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn., were absent. Both are co-sponsors of the bill.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., appeared to respond to Stewart's remarks later in the hearing, according to The Hill.
"All these empty chairs that's because it's for the full committee, not because it's disrespect or lack of attention to you," Cohen said.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., predicted the bill will pass with overwhelming support and said lawmakers meant no disrespect as they came and went from the subcommittee hearing, a common occurrence on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers said they support the bill and were monitoring the hearing amid other congressional business, the Associated Press reported.