9/11 Wears On GOP, Now New York’s Problem: Margaret Carlson

Sometimes I say to myself, “Republicans would never go that far.” Then they do, to no ill effect.

They wouldn’t dare vow to bring Congress to a halt until the rich got their tax breaks. But they said it out loud and under the lights, and President Barack Obama knew they meant business. That’s why he blinked and made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, pairing their tax cuts with unemployment benefits and some economic stimulus.

In the interim, nothing did get done, including medical benefits for first responders who have suffered for their bravery at the World Trade Center ruins on and after Sept. 11.

Who thought Republicans, the party of 9/11, would allow themselves to become the party dragged kicking and screaming to help sick men and women who ran toward the fallen towers when every instinct of self-preservation said to run the other way?

The bill that got held up is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named for a policeman, a non-smoker who was healthy as of 2001, only to die in 2006 at age 34 of a respiratory illness.

The legislation, finally adopted by the Senate yesterday in what New York’s two senators called a “Christmas miracle,” provides $4.3 billion -- negotiated down from $6.2 billion -- to help and compensate people who became sick years after being exposed to toxins at Ground Zero, including those who stuck around for months to dig out the dead and now struggle with disability claims and uncompensated health-care costs.

Simple Idea

The principle is a simple one: If you risked your life and lost your health in America’s hour of need, America will stand by you.

You would think Republicans would have been tripping over themselves to uphold that principle, not nickling-and-diming these collateral victims, some of whom are dealing with grotesque respiratory diseases. Men who once were strapping and healthy are dying in their 40s.

In the immediate aftermath of the towers falling, people wondered if the nausea and headaches some workers were getting was a harbinger of worse effects to come. Christie Whitman, then administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, assured us that New York’s air was “safe to breathe.” Six years later she told Congress that she had been addressing those comments to residents of Lower Manhattan in general, not workers at Ground Zero.

At the risk of understatement, 9/11 was long sacred to Republicans -- or so they said. It was used as justification for vast new law-enforcement powers, for cutting taxes in 2003 to stimulate the economy, for invading Iraq.

Drawing the Line

For reasons that elude me, Senate Republicans decided to draw the line at sick 9/11 responders. And for too long those of us in the press lost track of the story in a welter of procedural moves Republicans threw up like Jersey barriers.

It took “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to do what the rest of us failed to do.

In the last episode of the year, Stewart hosted four first responders, all ill. John Devlin, an operating engineer with stage four throat cancer, said in a raspy voice, “We’re patriots to this country.” Firefighter Kenny Speck, who has cancer, told of a colleague who had recently died of face cancer, after “his nose fell off his face.”

Yet the often-weepy Republicans in Congress didn’t cry for these victims. Which raises this uncomfortable question: Was it because most of the victims are from New York?

Among the excuses Republicans came up with last summer was the prospect that there might be an illegal immigrant among those who could be helped by the legislation. Imagine the precedent that would set! Someone who got into this country illegally getting treatment for lung cancer contracted while trying to help injured Americans. Call it chemotherapy as moral hazard: the fear that more immigrants will sneak into our country for the chance to die for it.

Toxic Taxes

Republicans also raised the usual concerns about waste, fraud and abuse. They were horrified that the legislation -- which, unlike tax cuts, has to be paid for to be considered -- carried the whiff of a tax increase, because it closed a loophole benefiting foreign corporations. That’s as toxic to the GOP as asbestos.

A more recent excuse was the calendar. Having delayed the bill until their soaring dream of tax cuts for Rupert Murdoch could become a reality, they claimed insufficient time to consider it.

Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said he was offended that Democrats would move a bill directly onto the floor (it’s been around for years) and without a hearing (the appropriate committee held one). All the fuss seemed to mystify Kyl, who wondered aloud on Fox News, “Why would they need $6 billion?”

Not Next Year

This week, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said of the legislation, “We can do this next year, and we should.” It’s already too late for James Zadroga and others who’ve died after breathing the poisonous dust of Ground Zero. Time is running out for others.

Maybe that’s what the GOP means by being fiscally responsible: The longer they managed to stall, the fewer people would be alive to benefit.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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