Two Republican senators, including Utah’s Mike Lee, emerge to slow 9/11 victims bill

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) In this file photo, Utah Sen. Mike Lee speaks at “Newsmaker Breakfast,” a monthly event highlighting current issues impacting the State of Utah in Salt Lake City, Nov. 9, 2017.

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee is blocking the extension of a fund to compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that is running out of money.

Lee says his hold on the legislation is temporary and to ensure there’s oversight of the fund. Democrats and victim advocate groups say it’s outrageous for the senator to stand in the way of helping care for the first responders who ran into the burning World Trade Center towers at their own peril. Many of those firefighters and police officers still suffer from breathing in toxic air.

Separately, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., objected Wednesday to fast-tracking a vote on the legislation that would fully fund the program for decades. It only takes one senator to hold up a bill to be passed by a voice vote.

“I am deeply disappointed that my colleague has just objected,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Wednesday. “Enough of the political games. Our 9/11 first responders and our entire nation are watching to see if this body actually cares. Do we care about the men and women who answer the call of duty?”

Lee's office said the bill should still pass but not before there are checks and balances written into the measure to ensure the money is doled out accurately.

“Senator Lee fully expects the 9/11 compensation bill to pass before the August recess and he is seeking a vote to ensure the fund has the proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse,” Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said Wednesday.

Paul argued on the Senate floor that the bill needs to be paired with offsets elsewhere and urged caution to passing a spending measure that lasts decades without cutting elsewhere.

“We need, at the very least, to have this debate,” Paul said.

Gillibrand’s bill now has 73 co-sponsors, though neither Lee nor Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, have signed on.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, noted that the Senate is taking up a defense spending bill that doesn’t have offsets and wondered why the 9/11 bill was different. He also pointed out that the House passed the measure 402-12.

“Why are we holding this bill up?” Schumer asked. “If we put it on the floor today, we could pass it and be on the president's desk this week, and those brave people here and the many more who came would not have to come again. They should not have to come again.”

Gerard Fitzgerald, president of New York’s Uniformed Firefighters Association, said he and others waited for an hour at Lee’s office to try to get a meeting with him to no avail. After news reports hit, he finally got a call from an aide who tried to convince him that more oversight was needed.

“I did not take the argument well,” Fitzgerald said, arguing the senator was “playing politics” with people’s lives.

“There are people that live in every state in the country that were part of 9/11,” he said. “So he has constituents that are affected by that tragic day. And it’s about time that this fund be funded properly [so] not another sick member needs to come down here and beg for compensation.”

Fitzgerald, whose association represents all firefighters in New York City, said there are checks and balances already in place to make sure there’s no abuse or fraud in how the money is distributed.

“I just think that Sen. Lee and Sen. Rand Paul — I don’t know if they are looking at this for attention or whatever but if this goes to a vote we believe that it will get passed and to play games with the emotions of the sick and dying is a poor way to get attention.”

Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master overseeing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), testified before Congress in June that there never has been any proven fraud with respect to its operations.

“We are very proud of the fact that the VCF under the Zadroga Act has not documented any instance of fraud in a paid claim,” Bhattacharyya said, referring to the act that authorized the fund.

The compensation fund – which was authorized shortly after the attacks in New York City and Washington to help first responders who worked in the toxic mix of burning chemicals, jet fuel and harmful dust — has been slashing its payouts since February.

The effort to pass long-term funding got a boost in June when former “Daily Show” comedian Jon Stewart made an impassioned plea to Congress to fully fund the program and shamed lawmakers for failing to take care of those who risked their lives and are suffering for it.

"They did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity, humility," Stewart said then. "Eighteen years later, do yours."

One of the first responders sitting behind Stewart at that congressional hearing is proof of the suffering of those who worked at Ground Zero.

Retired New York police Detective Luis Alvarez pled for funding the program at the hearing and died in late June from the cancer he got while at the site of the attacks.

“Passing this bill won’t stop people from getting sick, and it won’t stop people from dying who are gravely ill,” Gillibrand said. “But it will take the weight off the backs of their families about whether their government will stand with them and provide the financial resources they earned.”