The U.S. Congress approved legislation today to help rescuers and clean-up crews suffering from illnesses linked to the wreckage caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
The Senate passed the measure on a voice vote after Republicans ended their opposition to it when its costs were lowered and other changes were made. The House then approved the bill, 206-60. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature into law.
“The Christmas miracle we’ve been looking for has arrived,” Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrats, said in a statement after the Senate vote.
The bill provides for $4.3 billion in additional aid over five years, with $1.5 billion for health-care benefits and $2.7 billion for compensation, said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who had been blocking the bill. The House initially approved more than $7 billion and the Senate was considering a $6.2 billion bill.
Coburn said the legislation would close the victims’ compensation fund in 2016 instead of 2031 and would include workers’ compensation payments in determining benefits that victims would receive for injuries or ailments related to the destruction of the World Trade Center site in New York.
“Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity,” Coburn, a physician, said in a statement.
Supporters sought to reopen the compensation fund created following the terrorist attacks. They argued that many of those affected by exposure to toxic dust didn’t become ill until after the compensation program ended.
The bill establishes more permanent funding for government programs providing health care to those who responded to rescue and cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center site and to others who were in the area on Sept. 11, 2001, turning them into benefits that don’t have to be appropriated each year by Congress.
Since the attacks, lawmakers have provided almost $500 million for screening and treatment services to those involved in the rescue and recovery efforts, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The fund made 2,880 death and 2,680 injury awards totaling more than $7 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said.
To pay for the health care costs, the bill includes a new 2 percent excise tax on goods or services purchased from federal contractors in countries such as China, India and Thailand that are outside the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Government Procurement. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, objected to the tax, which was added to the bill this week to replace another tax proposal that business groups also opposed.
Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, said he was “troubled” by the procurement tax because it “may be challenged” and is “inconsistent with our international obligations.” The Washington-based group advocates policies aimed at making U.S. companies competitive in foreign markets.
The legislation “affirms our nation’s commitment to protecting those who protect us all,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “The events of that day were an attack on America by a foreign enemy, and addressing its health impacts is a national duty.”
The mayor, who is chairman of the foundation that will finance a Sept. 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero, is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.