9/11 Health Bill Supporters Make Last-Ditch Push

Backers of a bill to provide as much as $7.4 billion in aid to people exposed to World Trade Center dust began a final, bipartisan push Tuesday for Senate passage before the lame duck Congress adjourns.

Survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks, first responders and lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill to rally support and to lobby key senators, including moderate Republicans whose votes are vital.

"This should not be a partisan fight," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "We have an undeniable, moral obligation to provide our 9/11 heroes with all the care they need."

The bill passed the House in September, but it could die unless the Senate approves it before departing this year. Backers worry it could face a tougher fight in the new, more fiscally conservative Congress, where Republicans will have a stronger hand.

Gillibrand said she's optimistic proponents can win two Republican votes along with the support of all Senate Democrats. That would be enough votes to break any filibuster and pass the bill. Illinois Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, a Republican expected to be sworn in during the lame duck session, has said he would vote for the bill, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

"We will pass this bill," said Gillibrand, who promised a strong push with supporters to find another GOP vote.

The bill would provide free health care and compensation to 9/11 rescue and recovery workers who fell ill after working in the Trade Center ruins.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped lobby GOP senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts, John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine.

"We all know this is an issue of national importance," said Bloomberg.

GOP critics have branded the bill as a big-government program that would boost taxes and kill jobs.

To pay the estimated $7.4 billion cost over 10 years, the legislation requires multinational companies incorporated in tax havens to pay taxes on income earned in the U.S. Bill supporters said that would close a tax loophole. Republicans have branded it a corporate tax increase.

Researchers have found that people exposed to the thick clouds of pulverized building materials at the trade center site have high rates of asthma and sinus problems. Many firefighters also suffered a reduction in lung power. Doctors aren't sure, though, exactly how many people are ill, and scientific doubt persists about just how many of the hundreds of illnesses are actually linked to the trade center dust.

The legislation is named for James Zadroga, a police detective who died at age 34. His supporters say he died from respiratory disease contracted at ground zero, but New York City's medical examiner said Zadroga's lung condition was caused by prescription drug abuse.

Meanwhile, more than 10,000 ground zero rescue and recovery workers who sued New York City over its handling of the disaster also were waiting to hear Tuesday whether a settlement struck in their case would lead to a big payout.

Under a deal tentatively reached in the spring, a taxpayer-funded entity created by Congress would pay between $625 million to $716 million to people who sued over their exposure to World Trade Center dust.

Settlements of related legal claims against insurance companies and other government agencies would raise the total compensation to the workers available through the courts to at least $721 million and possibly more than $812 million.

The fate of those deals, though, depends on how many people agree to take the money. At least 95 percent must join the settlement for it to take effect.

Workers had until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to sign on. The federal judge overseeing the litigation has agreed to extend such deadlines twice previously, but issued an order Tuesday saying there would be no more extensions.

The judge has barred attorneys in the case from speaking to the media about the results of the tally, the results of which are expected to be released by the court no earlier than Thursday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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