Jon Stewart wasn’t in the mood for jokes during a visit to the Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The former “Daily Show” host is pushing Congress to extend federal benefits for 9/11 first responders that expire at the end of the month — a move he characterized as the least the government can do.
“If they can’t get this done I don’t have a tremendous amount of hope they can get anything done, this is about as unassailable a piece of legislation as you can possibly have,” Stewart told reporters. “If you can’t get this done, maybe we should shut down [the government]. The words f*** it come to mind.”
Stewart was joined by a group of first responders that have been lobbying Congress to extend the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical treatment and assistance to police, firefighters and others who worked on the ground in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center. Stewart led a rally on the Capitol lawn before heading inside to address Senate Democrats during their weekly party luncheon.
“Hopefully we’ll get some momentum and get things done and we won’t have to drag first responders with stage four cancer down to Washington every five years to beg for medicine because it’s embarrassing,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he is scheduled to meet later in the day with a long list of members, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell told reporters that he would support an extension of the program.
“The committees of jurisdiction in the House and the Senate are working on the details,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he welcomed McConnell’s support and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Republican leader’s comment offered “a glimmer of hope.”
Stewart was joined at the Capitol by John Feal, a U.S. Army veteran and founder of the 9/11 first responder awareness group The FealGood Foundation. Feal told reporters that he has made 14 separate visits to Washington to lobby for benefits and that prior to 2010 he was frequently thrown out of member offices.
Dr. David J. Prezant, the chief medical officer for the New York City Fire Department, said more than 72,000 first responders and recovery workers have been enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. Nearly half of those — about 33,000 — are being treated for a “certified” disease known to be related to the attacks. About 3,000 have cancer, Prezant said, with more than 1,000 of those being firefighters.
“If this program is not reauthorized, every one of those people that ran into those buildings selflessly, every one of those people will be told that their health insurance for the World Trade Center is over, that their chemotherapy for cancer, which can cost over $100,000 a year, is their responsibility,” Prezant said. “That’s not what we promised these people.”
Stewart said his goal is to make the program permanent so that its beneficiaries can know that they will receive medicine and treatment for conditions that “do not expire.”
“You can’t tweet out ‘Never Forget 9/11’ from the comfort of your House or Senate office, then forget the guys who ran into those buildings.” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”
Stewart did stop for a lighter moment to snap a few photos with Senate pages. He asked the assembled group of high school students from around the country if they get paid for their duties.
The response: a resounding yes.
-Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.