Comedian Jon Stewart had a message for the hundreds of firefighters and police who descended on Capitol Hill Wednesday to pressure Congress to renew health care benefits for 9/11 first-responders, which begin to expire next month: He’s sorry.
“I want to apologize to all the men and women, first-responders, that you had to come down here today,” Stewart said at a rally in front of the Capitol Wednesday morning. “I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for our country, I’m embarrassed for New York, I’m embarrassed that you, after serving so selflessly, with such heroism, have to come down here and convince people to do what’s right for the illnesses and difficulties that you suffered because of your heroism and because of your selflessness. Nobody had to lobby you to rush toward those towers that day.”
But Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show, also offered a warning to first-responders: "Today on the Hill, you will be exposed to possibly toxic levels of bullshit and arrogance."
Stewart was joined by hundreds of first-responders as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler, and Peter King, all members from New York who have sponsored the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. Gillibrand and others have credited Stewart’s consistent ribbing of members of Congress who opposed the bill in 2010 with helping to get it passed in the first place.
The bill, which provides compensation and health care benefits to 9/11 first-responders, begins to expire this month. It includes the World Trade Center Health Program, which pays for health care for first-responders and will expire on September 30, though the fund can be drawn from for an additional year. It also includes the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides additional funds to victims and expires in October 2016.
There may already be some movement on the issue. Asked Wedneday whether the program should be extended and whether that could be part of a continuing resolution, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "I'm going to be meeting with first responders later today myself, and we do plan to extend the program and the committees of jurisdiction in the House and the Senate are actually working on the details now."
The exact details of what McConnell is proposing remain unclear, but New York Sen. Chuck Schumer responded: "That is great news at last."
The bill almost died in 2010 and was initially voted down in the House, amid Republican concerns over the cost of the bill and that it was, at the time, permanent. Gillibrand and others helped to negotiate a deal with Sens. Tom Coburn, now retired, and Michael Enzi, to shorten its authorization to six years, a deal that passed the Senate unanimously.
Supporters now hope to push Congress to make both programs permanent, citing additional research linking diseases to toxins found at the 9/11 site and similar funds set up for coal-miners and former nuclear workers. More than 4,100 first-responders and survivors have contracted cancer related to 9/11, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while more than 33,000 have at least one related illness or injury.
So far, the bill has 151 co-sponsors in the House, including 33 Republicans, and 37 sponsors in the Senate, including six Republican members.
Asked why the reauthorization is needed now, while both programs will continue to operate for the next year, Stewart said: “My feeling is if you have stage 4 cancer and you get a letter of notifications saying that the medicine you rely on may be ending in a year, that to me is an urgent-care situation. … These illnesses that they have are not on five-year cycles.”
Stewart noted that of the four first-responders he interviewed on his show in 2010, one of them, John Devlin, has “already passed away” from related illnesses.
T.J. Gilmartin, a first-responder who ran to the towers from a high rise he was building in Manhattan on 9/11, noted that there could be many more cases of illness to come, long after the current Zadroga bill expires. “I have an asbestos supervisor’s license. Asbestos and mesothelioma, there’s a 20-year lag time on that. … What is five years going to do? It’s not exactly 20 years. [In] 2020, 2022, you could have a lot of guys dying from lung cancer,” he said. The Mesothelioma Center says the latency period can typically run anywhere from 20 to 50 years.
The hundreds of first-responders, and their families, who came to the Capitol Wednesday include Joseph Zadroga, whose son James was the first New York Police Department officer to die of complications from the toxic chemicals at the site of the World Trade Center towers. They hope to visit 535 congressional offices, thanking those members who have already signed onto the reauthorization bill and trying to convince members who haven’t to join the effort.
John Feal, a first-responder and the founder of the FealGood Foundation that advocates for fellow 9/11 responders, helped to organize the rally and office visits on Wednesday. "We’re here to challenge Congress to be an American, to be a human being with compassion,” Feal said at Wednesday’s rally. “But we’re also not going to take no for an answer. ... I'm going to put my foot in their ass. I'm not going to sugarcoat this—foot to ass—because this is about human life. We’re talking about men and women dying.”
Feal said that he and other first-responders have now made 14 trips to Washington this year to urge members of Congress to permanently reauthorize the Zadroga bill and have held 300 meetings with members before Wednesday’s rally. “They will remember September 16, not because of a debate tonight, because a bunch of hard-core ass-kicking 9/11 first-responders walked the halls of Congress to fight for the tens of thousands that couldn’t be here,” Feal told supporters.