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GOP lawmakers face criticism for opposing Sept. 11 responders bill

Los Angeles Times

Congressional Republicans are coming under growing criticism for their opposition to a bill that would provide medical care for Sept. 11 attack responders and survivors, including ailing police officers and firefighters.

As advocates press for Senate approval, Republican resistance to the measure has grown increasingly untenable.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the GOP fashioned itself as the party that celebrated the heroism of the Sept. 11 workers, but now is seen by many as stalling the healthcare of last resort.

“I can tell you, whoever votes against 9/11 responders a couple of days before Christmas is truly un-American,” said John Feal, a former demolition supervisor who lost a foot when a steel beam fell on it during recovery efforts at the World Trade Center.

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He launched the nonprofit FealGood Foundation to lobby on behalf of first responders.

Further eroding the GOP’s political position has been support for the legislation from prominent Republican leaders, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was New York’s mayor at the time of the attacks, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

New York’s senators now believe they have the support to overcome a Republican filibuster in a vote that may be held as early as Tuesday.

“We are on the verge of an eleventh-hour breakthrough,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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The GOP largely opposes funding what many have characterized as a new entitlement program at a time of soaring deficits.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the No. 2 party leader, said Sunday that the Senate should focus its remaining days on the annual year-end spending, with funding for the government set to expire Tuesday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last week the Senate should concentrate on an arms treaty with Russia.

Passage of the healthcare measure even now may come too late for many.

The Rev. Stephan Petrovic of Ohio, a chaplain who tended to the dead and dying at the World Trade Center and who now is in hospice care, does not expect to see another Christmas. Petrovic, his voice barely audible, suffered lung damage that he said resulted from breathing dust at the site following the attack.

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But for others like him, the chaplain said passage could help meet the high costs of paying for medical coverage on their own.

Many responders and volunteers no longer have insurance as they became disabled from work or have bounced around the workers’ compensation system.

“What insurance?” said Petrovic, 59. “Most of us lost our jobs; we couldn’t work anywhere. We’re sick people.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called Monday for passage, saying that caring for the first responders “is nothing less than a national duty.”

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“The time for excuses is over,” Bloomberg said. “It’s time to end the debate and let the bill be voted on.”

In response to the GOP complaints, lawmakers have scaled back the cost of the measure, from $7.4 billion to $6.2 billion.

The larger bill was blocked two weeks ago in a party-line vote in the Senate. The House passed a similar bill in September after weeks of GOP-led opposition.

Advocates say one of the biggest boosts to the legislative effort arrived last week when comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” broadcast the stories of World Trade Center workers and survivors and pointedly criticized the GOP’s obstruction.

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“Jon Stewart really took this into overdrive for us,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the bill’s sponsor in the House.

The bill would provide medical monitoring and treatment to those who responded to the World Trade Center site, as well as residents, workers and schoolchildren in the surrounding community — many of whom were told it was safe to return to their homes and offices as the recovery was underway, officials said.

The funding, provided through an existing World Trade Center health program, would allow coverage for 25,000 responders and 25,000 community members, bringing to more than 100,000 the number of people covered through the program. The legislation would also reopen the Victim Compensation Fund, which closed to claims in 2003.

The cost of the bill would be paid by charging fees on foreign companies that provide goods to the U.S. government and continuing existing visa fees on tourists and companies that hire certain foreign workers.

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While most of the responders live in the surrounding region, officials estimate up to 10,000 people from across the country came to the World Trade Center site to help with recovery. California alone has 1,171 people enrolled in the health program, the fourth-highest after New York, New Jersey and Florida.

Proponents of the bill say at least 990 people have died from illnesses resulting from their work after the 2001 attacks but add that number probably is too low because many of those who fell ill died before realizing their health problems were related to their work.

“This is one of the clearest issues I’ve ever seen of a vote between right vs. wrong,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Mascaro reported from Washington and Susman from New York..

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lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

tina.susman@latimes.com


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