The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How health care for 9/11 responders became just another political football

epa04933423 Former ‘Daily Show’ host Jon Stewart listens to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speak during a news conference to advocate for 9/11 victims on Sept. 16. The event was held to advocate for 9/11 victims suffering from cancer and other serious health problems, to urge Congress for an extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act. (EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)

John Feal is a tired man.

The 49-year-old Long Islander has made 22 trips to Washington in the past 11 months, leading groups of fellow construction workers and 9/11 responders to plead with members of Congress and staff to renew $8 billion in aid for those who fell sick after working at Ground Zero.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Feal had just arrived back at his Virginia hotel room after another day roaming the halls on Capitol Hill, trying to convince lawmakers to make good on their promises, and the frustration showed.

“Everything they asked of me for the last year since January, we’ve done. They wanted to get co-sponsors? We did that. They wanted us to get more support for the bill? We did that. They wanted us to go to meetings? We did that. But every time we’ve done everything, they continue to moved the goal posts back on us. Every time we get to the 1-yard line, they just move it back.”

What put Feal at the breaking point — earlier that day, he was quoted in the Huffington Post calling the speaker of the House and a powerful committee chairman the “latest members of the a**hole of the month club” — was that his battle was supposed to have been over by now. Instead, Feal is still walking the Capitol halls, congressional aides continue to work behind the scenes to broker a solution, and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart — a longtime advocate for the 9/11 workers — even made a special return to television to keep the pressure on.

Just before Thanksgiving, most everyone involved thought the deal had been struck: The renewal of the World Trade Center health program and a compensation fund for 9/11 victims was supposed to catch a ride on a massive transportation bill, paid for with funds left over by emptying a Federal Reserve surplus account. According to advocates and congressional staff from both parties, the arrangement — assembled by the bill’s lead advocate, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y), and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, all New York Democrats — had the backing of key leaders in both the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, and was waiting for the nod of one man: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But by the end of the day on Monday, Nov. 30 — Congress’s first day back after the holiday — the deal was in tatters. McConnell told Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in a morning meeting that the 9/11 bill would not be included in the transportation package, and efforts by aides to salvage the deal did not succeed.

“Sen. Schumer and Gillibrand ticked off every box of every potential opponent — Democrat, Republican, House and Senate — and it all came down to one box at the bottom: Mitch McConnell,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat. “He stopped it.”

The reasons why that happened are under dispute. Regardless, to Feal and many of the lawmakers who have tried to push the reauthorization through, it has demonstrated a depressing reality about getting anything done on Capitol Hill.

“Take 9/11 out of the occasion — this is why the American people are fed up with Congress,” Feal said. “This is why we get disgusted with our nation’s leaders. If they continue to do politics like this, it’s going to lead the country down a dark path.”

When the 9/11 health program was first established five years ago, it came only after a fierce lobbying campaign. Not only did advocates have to deal with questions about the cost of the program, they had to explain to lawmakers why it was necessary and assuage concerns that it would be racked with fraud. One House member attached an amendment insisting that beneficiaries be checked against the FBI’s terrorist watch list.

Today, the importance of the program is not seriously questioned, and it has proven to be a well-run enterprise. The only obstacles, it seems, have been political.

“Everyone said they were for it,” said Maloney on Thursday, after walking off the House floor wearing a New York fireman’s coat given to her by advocates. “But if everyone’s for it, why couldn’t you pass it? I never met anyone who said, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this.’ Everybody said, ‘Yes, I’m for it.’ But, then they wanted to change certain aspects of it or to limit it or limit the time frame. But it’s the right thing to do, and it’s rare that you get to work on something that is so pure, so right.”

Democratic aides say that McConnell’s office proposed a horse-trade, a classic bit of legislative logrolling, to get bill into the transportation package: In their telling, 9/11 funding could have gotten into the bill in return for an end to the four-decade ban on oil exports. Lifting the ban is something most Democrats oppose — at least without significant energy-related concessions — and trading a health program for sick 9/11 workers’ health care was not going to fly.

McConnell aides call that version of events — one Stewart presented this week on the Daily Show — a misrepresentation of the interaction and say that the pre-Thanksgiving deal wasn’t in fact complete. McConnell, they say, has not wavered in his determination to reauthorize the aid program even if the vehicle for doing so has shifted over time.

McConnell said Tuesday it was “not true” that he single-handedly kept the carefully negotiated compromise off the transportation bill, adding that he planned to take action soon: “I support what’s trying to be achieved, and we hope to accomplish it,” he said. On Friday, he told Politico it would get done as a part of the omnibus spending bill: “Every­body’s for it. It’s go­ing to be in­cluded.”

But the very idea that the 9/11 program had become a partisan chit to be traded has given Democrats plenty of fodder to attack McConnell and Republicans. “It’s disgusting,” Nadler said this week. “This should not be a quid pro quo. We don’t say to [military] veterans that your health care is coming from a quid pro quo somewhere.”

With the transportation bill passed and signed into law, the Federal Reserve money that had initially been eyed before Thanksgiving is now gone. That has left lawmakers to cobble together the $8.1 billion in funding from other sources in order to attach the bill to tax and spending bills that are expected to pass before Christmas.

On Thursday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) assured House Republicans — many of whom have signed onto the reauthorization bill — in a closed-door conference meeting that the 9/11 health program would be taken care of. But it remains uncertain exactly how that will happen.

Aides said Thursday that about half of the costs had been identified, but the program’s backers were thrown another curveball this week, when Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, floated a plan to pay for the 9/11 bill by increasing Medicare premiums to the wealthiest Americans — a “means-testing” provision that is staunchly opposed by Democrats.

After yet another Capitol Hill rally on Thursday — this one attended by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton along with the usual phalanx of officials and advocates — Schumer said chances were “high but not certain” that the bill would be added to the year-end tax or spending bills.

“The way this works, one major player objects or just says, ‘I want it this way, not that way,’ and you have trouble,” Schumer said. “And we’ve had a few of those — not too many, but enough that we don’t have a deal yet.”

That may be the way Washington works, but to Feal — forced to make another trip, attend another rally, give another media interview — it’s too much to tolerate.

“I have a whole year of frustration pent up in me, watching good people die,” he said. “When I’m not in D.C., I’m going to wakes and funerals. … Our bill is the sacrificial lamb that had to take the hit, and, at the end of the day, when this bill does get passed, I might just throw one more a-bomb and say you’re all a**holes.”