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Congress Votes to Aid Sept. 11 Cleanup Crews Before Adjourning

The U.S. Congress passed legislation to help rescuers, cleanup crews and others who are suffering from ailments linked to the wreckage caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

As lawmakers headed toward adjournment for the year, the Senate passed the measure by voice vote yesterday after Republicans dropped their opposition to it. The House followed with a roll call vote, passing the bill 206-60. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

“Remember days like today, where America -- not Democrats, not Republicans, not New Yorkers, not Wyomingites -- rose to the occasion,” said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, at a celebratory news conference following the vote in his chamber. “That Statue of Liberty must have a grin from ear to ear, not just for New York, but for America.

The legislation, which will be effective July 1, provides $4.3 billion in aid over five years, with $1.5 billion for health-care benefits and $2.7 billion for compensation.

It establishes more permanent funding for the 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. The aid becomes benefits that don’t have to be appropriated each year by Congress. Those covered include people who were living near the site.

Compromise Reached

The path for the measure’s passage emerged after negotiations between Republicans led by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Democrats Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” Reid said at the news conference. “This is $4.3 billion better than nothing.”

The Democrats agreed to reduce the bill’s cost from the $6.2 billion they were proposing -- a figure already lower than the more than $7 billion in a measure previously approved by the House.

The Republicans agreed to let the bill proceed rather than use procedural motions that would have killed it with the congressional adjournment.

Coburn, a physician, said the revised bill would close the victims’ compensation fund in 2016 instead of 2031, and would include workers’ compensation payments in determining benefits that victims would receive.

“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 said in a statement.

Schumer’s Pledge

Schumer said he would work in future years to extend the compensation fund past its new expiration date.

He and Gillibrand were surrounded at their press conference by dozens of first responders and others who helped clean up the World Trade Center site. Some had made repeated trips to Washington to prod lawmakers to pass the measure, and cheered in the House gallery when it became assured of passage during the roll call.

“We gave it a face and a heartbeat,” said John Feal, a supervisor for a demolition company that helped clean up the so-called Ground Zero site and made, by his count, 89 trips to the U.S. Capitol in the last five years.

To help pay its 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.

Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, said he was “troubled” by the tax. He said it could 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.

‘Moral Imperative’

New York Governor David Paterson said the bill “has been a moral imperative, and I am pleased that Congress agrees that this is not only a priority for New York state, but for our entire country.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the events of Sept. 11 “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.

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 compensation fund made 2,880 death and 2,680 injury awards totaling more than $7 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said.

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