Sen. Mike Lee strikes deal to get a final vote on 9/11 compensation bill

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee struck a deal Thursday to allow a vote on his amendment to tweak the legislation to extend the compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a bill that he held up this week.

The Utah Republican said Thursday afternoon that Senate leaders will allow him to offer his amendment that would give the program about $10 billion over a decade, far short of the original language that would extend the fund for 73 years so injured or ill first responders do not have to return to Congress seeking money again.

Lee had come under fire by Democrats and first responders by blocking a vote on the legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and co-sponsored by 73 other senators. It had previously passed the House 402-12.

Lee's objection stemmed, he said, from worries about oversight of the fund despite no evidence there has been any abuse or fraud since its inception.

“The men and women who responded to the horrific events of September 11, 2001, are among the great heroes of American history,” Lee said in a statement. “Since 2011, the 9/11 Victims Fund has always had finite authorizations, and by all accounts it has an excellent record avoiding waste and abuse. These two things are not coincidental. They go together.”

The special master overseeing the fund testified last month that there have been no proven cases of misuse of the money.

Lee said his amendment is a better approach, offering 10 years worth of money instead of offering a blank check for decades to come. He based his $10.2 billion estimate on what the Congressional Budget Office said the fund needed for a decade.

“This is something that we could vote on in a matter of minutes, fifteen minutes or so, and then move on to final passage,” Lee said. “We could in fact accomplish all of this today, before we adjourn for the weekend. This is in fact what I would prefer. I think finishing our work on this bill to protect victims and first responders is worth a half hour of our time.”

Senate leaders, though, decided to hold the vote next week, Lee said.

The deal caps off a spat several days running with Democrats, victims advocates and first responders assailing Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who objected to a voice vote on the legislation that could easily have passed earlier this week.

Paul pressed that there should be cuts elsewhere to the government’s spending to pay for the 9/11 fund. The Senate will also consider an amendment by Paul, though it was unclear how it would change the bill.

Comedian and 9/11 victims advocate Jon Stewart noted on Fox News that Lee and Paul had supported President Donald Trump’s tax cuts that are estimated to add billions of dollars of debt.

There’s some things that they have no trouble putting on the credit card, but somehow when it comes to the 9/11 first responder community, the cops, the firefighters, the construction workers, the volunteers, the survivors, all of a sudden, man we gotta go through this,” Stewart said.

John Feal, a demolition expert injured responding to the 9/11 attacks, told Fox News that Lee’s staff just two months ago had promised that the senator wouldn’t object to the legislation, which previously passed the house 402-12.

“Mike Lee, you’re a liar,” Feal said, looking into the camera and making an ‘I’m watching you’ gesture.

“You can’t cherry-pick and choose when you want to be a conservative fiscal hawk; that’s just insulting to our intelligence,” he added. “And shame on them. They lack humanity; they lack leadership.”

On CNN Thursday, Feal went further.

“These are men that voted for the trillion-dollar tax cut,” Feal said. “They should be begging for forgiveness for being a--holes for the last 15 years.”