Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a group of first responders Tuesday that the chamber is working to pass a renewal of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund by August, a move that comes after McConnell was sharply criticized by comedian Jon Stewart over his handling of the measure.
John Feal, a construction worker who was injured at Ground Zero and has become an activist, said after leaving a meeting with McConnell that the Republican from Kentucky “agreed with us and sensed our urgency.”
“He’d like to see this get done by August, which is way ahead of schedule,” Feal said. “We look forward to working with Mitch McConnell to ensure that we have legislation through the House and the Senate by August.”
Feal was among a handful of 9/11 first responders who met with McConnell in his office at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. One survivor, Rob Serra, entered in a wheelchair, his New York Fire Department squad number embroidered on his shirt. Nobody spoke as the men of all ages were greeted by the senator.
“He seemed genuine to me,” Serra said of McConnell. “When he says he is going to get this done by August, I believe him.” He added that the group spoke with Stewart ahead of the meeting and that he wished them luck.
Earlier in the day, McConnell told reporters that he was looking forward to the meeting.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, we’re certainly going to address this issue,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously in support of replenishing the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which provides money to those facing sometimes terminal illnesses linked to their work amid the toxic debris at 9/11 attack sites.
The $7.3 billion fund was opened by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for deaths and illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., after terrorists crashed four hijacked airliners on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The fund has paid about $5 billion to about 21,000 claimants. With more than 19,000 additional unpaid claims, the fund is running out of money, and under current law it is scheduled to stop taking claims in December 2020.
At an emotional hearing the day before the House vote, Stewart excoriated members of Congress and pleaded with them to quickly pass the bill. During a subsequent interview on “Fox News Sunday,” he particularly took aim at McConnell.
“I want to make it clear that this has never been dealt with compassionately by Senator McConnell,” Stewart said. “He has always held out until the very last minute, and only then, under intense lobbying and public shaming, has he even deigned to move on it.”
McConnell responded that he didn’t know why Stewart was “all bent out of shape” over the measure. “We have never failed to address this issue, and we will address it again,” he said.
President Trump told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an interview that aired Sunday that he was “very impressed” by Stewart’s testimony on behalf of the first responders.
“I liked what Jon Stewart did,” Trump said of his fellow New Yorker. “I actually did. And I actually have a meeting on that subject next week.” He did not disclose any details of the meeting.
In remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “it’s a good thing” that McConnell was meeting with the first responders. He renewed his call for McConnell to bring the funding measure to the Senate floor.
“It’s not enough to have just a meeting; these brave men and women who rushed to the towers selflessly, in the midst of danger, when no one knew what would come next — they deserve a commitment that their bill will be considered in a timely manner here on the floor,” Schumer said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the bill had reached 60 co-sponsors, giving it “a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority.”
“We have the votes for this bill to pass as soon as it comes to the floor,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
One of the responders who met with McConnell was Brendan Fitzpatrick, who responded on 9/11 as a lieutenant with the New York Police Department and remembers building 7 collapsing on him nearly 18 years ago.
Fitzpatrick said Tuesday that he is determined to educate lawmakers on the importance of the compensation fund, which he says has helped him in his own life.
“It kind of evens you out,” he said of the fund. “It makes you whole.”
His fellow advocate, Feal, has visited Capitol Hill numerous times over the years to press Congress to do more to help the first responders. He called Tuesday’s meeting with McConnell “probably one of the best meetings that I’ve had personally in the last 15 years — and I don’t say that lightly, ’cause I haven’t had many of them.”
Feal said that the first responders gave McConnell the badge of Luis Alvarez, a retired New York Police Department detective and Ground Zero responder, who delivered an emotional testimony to lawmakers earlier this month.
Alvarez had implored Congress to do better by those sick or injured as a result of 9/11 attacks, sharing his own experience undergoing more than five dozen chemotherapy sessions to treat his Stage 4 cancer. On June 19, Alvarez shared that his liver had shut down the day after the hearing. He is now in hospice care.
“To get [McConnell’s] commitment today — and all of them in the meeting heard it — we’re satisfied. Are we happy? No,” Feal said, growing emotional. “We’re going to leave here and Luis Alvarez is going to die. And in that meeting, we gave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Luis Alvarez’s badge and we wanted the Senate majority leader to be reminded of people like Detective Luis Alvarez.”
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.