Washington • The Senate passed a measure Tuesday extending for decades the fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after defeating an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee that would have limited the payout to about $20 billion over the life of the program.
The bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the Senate 97-2 and was previously approved by the House, now heads to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature.
Lee, a Utah Republican, had held up the bill while attempting to curtail the expansion to only what is needed in the next decade. His amendment, shot down by a 32-66 vote, would have given $10.18 billion to the fund in the next 10 years and another $10 billion after that.
After his amendment failed, Lee voted against the final bill. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, supported the overall measure.
Lee walked off the floor shortly after it was clear his amendment didn’t have the 60 votes it needed to pass.
His office declined to comment on the vote and pointed to a statement from last week when the senator said that the victim’s fund has had an “excellent record avoiding waste and abuse” and has always been funded for a time-certain extension.
“These two things are not coincidental,” he said in that statement. “They go together.”
The Senate also rejected an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have cut other programs to pay for extending the 9/11 fund. Paul cast the only other “no” vote.
Romney voted for both Lee’s and Paul’s amendments and then voted for the underlying bill that fully funds the compensation program.
“We have a responsibility to care for our heroic 9/11 first responders who have become seriously ill as a result of their service at ground zero,” Romney said in a statement. “At the same time, we also have a responsibility to be careful stewards of tax dollars, which is why I voted to support amendments offered by Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul that would have offset the costs of the Victim Compensation Fund. While those amendments didn’t pass, it was critical that Congress act in a bipartisan manner to renew the fund.”
Lee and Paul had outraged first responders and their advocates after they held up a final vote on the fund that has broad bipartisan support. Lee had objected to the idea of greenlighting the extension for the next 73 years as written into the legislation and argued that more oversight was needed.
The special master overseeing the fund testified before Congress last month that there hasn’t been any proven case of abuse or fraud with regard to the program that was set up to help firefighters, police officers and medical workers who were subjected to a toxic mix of polluted air and dust in the aftermath of the fall of New York’s twin towers.
While the effort to extend the victims’ fund has been in the works for some time, comedian Jon Stewart gave it a national spotlight by shaming Congress for its failure to take care of the first responders, many of whom suffer from cancer or other diseases likely brought on because of their work at ground zero.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had urged his colleagues to vote against the amendments offered by Lee and Paul because he said at best it would delay the bill’s passage and, at worst, possibly doom the bipartisan effort.
“Too long we’ve waited to settle this matter; too many people have put up partisan roadblocks along the road,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “But now we are here, about to exit the tunnel and guarantee — once and for all — that the heroes who rushed to the towers 18 years ago will no longer have to worry about compensation for their families when they’re gone.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and lead sponsor of the legislation, said Lee's amendment would have forced sick and dying first responders to continue to come back to Congress to get more funding.
“Do not fall into this trap,” she said. “Our 9/11 heroes deserve this program as is written in the bill without these amendments, which will only force them to have to come back here again and again.”
Paul said after the vote that he supports the first responders but that the government can’t keep cutting checks without finding other places to cut.
“While I support our heroic first responders, I can’t in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded," Paul said in a statement. "We have a nearly trillion dollar deficit and $22 trillion in debt. Spending is out of control. As I have done on countless issues, including disaster relief and wall funding, I will always take a stand against borrowing more money to pay for programs rather than setting priorities and cutting waste.”
Lee said on the Senate floor earlier that the $7.4 billion already allocated to care for the first responders was a “worthy use of the money” but that there should be restraints built into the program.
“It’s only right for Congress to reauthorize and replenish the fund so that we can make those beneficiaries whole,” he said, but Congress has a duty to make sure there is oversight of the program and not just write a blank check for 73 years.
His amendment, he said, “would make sure that the money gets to the victims and the first responders who need it most, to the intended beneficiaries rather than remaining vulnerable to the kind of waste, fraud, and abuse that comes about whenever we authorize something until 2092 with” an unlimited sum of money.