Schumer Says 9/11 Bill Must Pass Now

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said Sunday that the House should stay in session until the Senate passes a new version of a bill aimed at giving health benefits to Ground Zero workers.

Setting up a clash in the final days of the congressional session, Schumer – along with fellow New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand – offered a modified version of a bill Sunday giving compensation to rescue workers who fell ill from the toxic dust stemming from the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“There are ways that the House may be able to pass this bill by unanimous consent,” Schumer said at a Sunday news conference in the Capitol. “Otherwise, we believe they should stay to get the bill passed, and we’re going to get it done as quickly as possible.”

But with time running out this congressional session, Democrats have little margin for error. Schumer said that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave him assurances that the Senate would take up the bill after the Senate finishes its work on the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

“We’re next,” Schumer said.

Reid told reporters Sunday that “it’s a possibility” he may file for cloture to end debate on the START treaty Sunday night, setting up a key test vote as late as Tuesday. That could prompt a final passage vote of the START treaty Wednesday, at which point most senators want to leave town for the year and not return until after the new Congress convenes on Jan. 5.

There would have to be three votes on the 9/11 bill, including time-consuming cloture votes to overcome a filibuster. Even if Democrats have the 60 votes to break a filibuster, Republicans could force them to use up several days of floor time before it moves to a final vote on passage. Unless the two sides agree to speed debate,that could push final consideration of the measure until after Christmas, at which point the House would have to pass the measure before it reaches the president’s desk. 

“We would plead with every one of our colleagues not to proceed with procedural traps to prevent this from happening,” Schumer said. “Don’t delay those votes.”

But even if the Senate can clear the bill, the problem may rest on timing with the House.

The House is expected Tuesday to pass a continuing resolution that would keep the government operating through the beginning of March, at which point leaders are aiming to adjourn for the year.

The new version of the scaled-back bill carries a price tag of some $6 billion – and in a bid to win GOP support, Schumer and Gillibrand changed how it would be paid for by reducing future U.S. payments by 2 percent to companies located in certain foreign countries, continuing a fee on visas for companies that outsource and extending a levy on certain travelers to the United States that was enacted into law earlier this year. The measure, the proponents say, would reduce the deficit by $57 million over 10 years.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wasn’t immediately available for comment, but the chamber passed a $7.4 billion, 10-year bill in September.

"The House looks forward to Senate Republicans joining Democrats in getting 60 votes for this critical legislation but comments made today by the Senate GOP leadership are not encouraging," said a senior House Democratic aide.

Republicans earlier this month blocked the House-passed $7.4 billion version of the measure, insisting that the Senate first deal with tax cut legislation and a government funding bill. With the tax bill now signed into law, and Congress poised to pass a bill that will provide funding through March, Democrats say they hope they can get the 9/11 bill over the finish line.

Still, Republicans in the House and Senate have raised objections about the measure, saying it creates a new entitlement program that the country cannot afford.

“It's one thing to make an emotional appeal to say we need to take care of people but it’s another to do in a sensible way,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.” “That's all we're asking for. You bring it up in lame-duck session with no opportunity to amend it and you'll probably make bad legislation. All of this could have been done earlier, I might add.”

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