Clock ticking down on 9/11 responder law
Lawmakers in both chambers are racing against the clock to extend health and compensation benefits for the responders and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Parts of the James Zadroga Act expired last month — and funds for the health benefits program will begin drying up early next year — but the effort to renew the law has been hampered by ongoing disagreements over spending levels, the window for reauthorization and which offsets will cover the multi-billion-dollar price tag.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who supports the reauthorization effort, has called on a pair of committee heads — Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — to iron out those details.
"We should get this done by the end of the year," Ryan said last week.
The request is in line with Ryan's promise to stick to regular order in moving bills through the lower chamber.
But with the clock ticking down on 2015, the champions of the Zadroga renewal increasingly see their best chance in attaching the measure to a larger legislative package. The highway bill is one option, supporters say. But the better odds might lie with the omnibus bill, a year-end spending package Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to prevent a government shutdown.
"That appears to be the vehicle," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a lead sponsor of the House bill, said Wednesday by phone. "The problem is we're coming down to the wire here."
King's bill, sponsored with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), would permanently extend two separate initiatives authorized by the original Zadroga law: the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides healthcare benefits for emergency and cleanup workers who responded to the 911 attacks; and the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund (VCF), which covers losses for those physically injured — or for relatives of those killed — by the attacks. The VCF was designed to discourage lawsuits stemming from the tragedy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has sponsored a companion bill in the upper chamber. Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) is the leading Republican co-sponsor.
The proposals have plenty of support to clear each chamber — the House bill has 256 co-sponsors and the Senate companion has 66 — but most of the endorsements are from Democrats, and the Republican committee heads have been slow to consider the legislation.
That, it seems, is about to change.
Goodlatte's Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the VCF, is working on its own proposal to reauthorize the compensation fund for five years — rather than the permanent extension — and provide an additional $2.775 billion to fill it. The cost would be offset with "funds seized from the state sponsors of terror," not taxpayer dollars.
That allocation, however, is far short of the funding needed to meet the VCF's obligations, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates will require an additional $4.5 to $7.5 billion above current law.
Supporters of the Maloney-King bill say they're much more concerned about Goodlatte's funding levels than the condensed eligibility timeline.
"That's going to have to go higher than that," King said flatly.
King said he's met with Goodlatte, and the Judiciary chairman "is agreeable" to a funding level closer to $6 billion.
"The only disagreement is how it's paid for," King said.
The Maloney-King bill is offset by applying new fees — already paid by domestic insurance companies — to foreign-based insurance companies that are currently exempt. That provision, estimated to generate $9.5 billion over a decade, has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans, alike.
Goodlatte's alternative bill would also provide $1 billion to create a separate fund to compensate victims of other state-sponsored terrorist attacks, like the 1983 bombings of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon.
The committee has not said when it will consider the bill.
The Energy and Commerce panel, which oversees the healthcare element of the Zadroga law, is more open to a permanent extension of the program, according to King.
Although Upton last month floated the idea of a five-year reauthorization on par with Goodlatte's proposal, Republicans on the panel have more recently indicated support for the permanent extension.
"But that's unofficial and they haven't come up with the cost estimates yet," King clarified. "The question is the pay-for."
Upton had proposed covering the cost by raising healthcare premiums on Medicare patients who earn more than $1 million per year. But that provision has long-been a non-starter for Democrats, whose support is needed to enact the legislation.
An Energy and Commerce aide said the committee is making progress, but no final decisions have been made on the bill's specifics.
Across the Rotunda, Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health panel, said he considers the legislation "a top priority." But the Tennessee Republican suggested Congress has some time to play with.
“It is a top priority to reauthorize the legislation in the near future, that provides health care and support to the September 11th first responders and survivors, well before funds are needed for the continued smooth operation of the program," Alexander said Tuesday in a statement.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has assured us that funds remain available through the first part of next year to keep the program operating while Congress works to complete bipartisan legislation to extend this crucial program while making important reforms and improvements,” he added.
King had a more urgent message, warning that if Congress doesn't renew the legislation before year's end, doctors would begin to abandon the program and patients would be discouraged from participating.
"It would just create so much chaos," he said. "I don't even want to contemplate that.”