The Senate passed a bill Tuesday to ensure a fund to compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks never runs out of money — and that first responders won't have to return to Congress to plead for more funding.
The vote came after intense lobbying from ailing 9/11 first responders — including one who died shortly after testifying before Congress last month.
The bill, which was passed by a vote of 97-2, would authorize money for the fund through 2092, essentially making it permanent.
"I'm going to ask my team now to put down your swords and pick up your rakes and go home, and hopefully, we don't have to come back," victims' advocate John Feal told his fellow first responders at a news conference later. "What I'm going to miss the most about D.C. is — nothing."
Feal also thanked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who advocates charged had slowed down earlier versions of the bill, for getting the bill to the floor.
"He kept his word to me," Feal said.
One of the bill's champions, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., singled out comedian Jon Stewart for his activism on the issue.
"I think we can all agree I'm the real hero," Stewart quipped, before saying working with the 9/11 first responders was "the honor of my life."
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
"We can never repay all the 9/11 community has done for our country, but we can stop penalizing them," Stewart said. "I'm hopeful that today begins the process of being able to heal without the burden of having to advocate."
Before the bill's final passage, the chamber defeated two proposed amendments: One, from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would have restricted the authorization to 10 years; the other, from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, would have required offsets for the money spent on the fund.
Paul and Lee were the only senators who voted against the legislation.
"We whipped your asses," Feal said of the pair.
Paul tweeted after the vote: "While I support our heroic first responders, I can’t in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded."
The bill passed the House by a vote of 402-12 earlier this month, but Paul objected when Gillibrand sought to get the legislation passed in the Senate by unanimous consent last week. Lee also reportedly placed a procedural hold on the legislation, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would result in about $10.2 billion in additional payments over the next decade.
Paul called for the spending to be offset with cuts, citing the government's $22 trillion debt.
"Pardon me if I’m not impressed in any way by Rand Paul’s fiscal responsibility virtue signaling," the former "Daily Show" host told Fox News, noting that Paul supported President Donald Trump's tax cut that "added hundreds of billions of dollars to our deficit."
Stewart also blasted Congress as a whole when he testified before a House committee on the issue last month, slamming lawmakers for requiring the act to be reauthorized, resulting in ailing first responders having to make repeated trips to the Capitol.
Stewart testified alongside cancer-stricken former New York police Det. Luis Alvarez, who was scheduled to undergo his 69th round of chemotherapy the next day. Alvarez said the fund had given him a fighting chance against cancer, and he wanted to ensure other victims who were stricken by the toxic smoke from the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center had the same opportunity.
"My life isn’t worth more than the next responder to get cancer," he said.
He died less than three weeks later at age 53.
The bill, which now includes Alvarez's name, had 74 Senate co-sponsors and is expected to be quickly signed into law by the president, a native New Yorker.
Hours before the vote was scheduled to take place, Feal told NBC News he “just got a call from the White House” inviting him and other 9/11 first responders and their families to the White House for a bill signing Friday afternoon.
Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.
Frank Thorp V
Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.