Zadroga Act reauthorization left out of must-pass legislation, blocking crucial funding for 9/11 survivors
WASHINGTON — Reauthorization for the Zadroga Act is being left out of a must-pass piece of legislation, advocates for the program tell the Daily News, leaving supporters howling that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking crucial funding for 9/11 survivors.
Zadroga Act backers were hoping to get it permanently reauthorized in the bipartisan Highway Bill, a piece of legislation that's expected to be released Tuesday evening. But funding for the program for 9/11 first responders and other victims of the terror attacks' aftermath, which officially expired last fall and will run out of money early next year, was left out during negotiations between the House and Senate in spite of expectations that it would be added.
Democrats are blaming McConnell for the hold-up, which leaves just one more chance for advocates to pass the legislation before the end of the year.
"There was a clear path to getting this done but Senator McConnell blocked it," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the Daily News in a statement. "This is a sad state of affairs for the Republican Congress. They have the time to take away health care from 17 million Americans. They have the time to restrict access to health care for women. But they don't have time to give health care to our first responders who risked their lives on September 11th and the recovery efforts."
"It is just plain wrong to play politics with the healthcare of these 9/11 heroes. These brave men and women rushed headfirst into the towers to save the lives of others, which is why this bill has broad bipartisan support, a majority of both the House and the Senate, and needs to be passed right away," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said.
McConnell's office fired back, calling Reid's characterization "false" and saying the legislation hadn't been finalized.
"No, was not a done deal and we did not block it," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said in an email.
But House Democrats say that the bill, which has the support of solid bipartisan majorities in both Houses of Congress, wasn't held up by the Republicans on their side of Capitol Hill — including one who's been seen as a major obstacle to the permanent reauthorization.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a leader on the legislation, told the Daily News that Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who'd long opposed permanently reauthorizing the program, has come around and told her he now backs it, as does House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
"There was a lot of finger-pointing back and forth. People in the Senate were being told Goodlatte didn't support it and that was the problem but we talked to him and he says he supports this now," she said.
Goodlatte told the Daily News that "it's not quite that way" when asked if he had flipped to supporting full reauthorization, telling the Daily News to check in with his staff on his current views. His office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Ryan reiterated Tuesday morning that he's aiming to reauthorize the Zadroga Act before Congress heads out for the end of the year, though he refused to say whether it would be a permanently funded program or how it would pass.
"We have not decided what vehicle it will be or what funding level but it is something that we do intend on getting done by the end of the year," he said.
Barring a last-minute reversal on the highway bill, however, there remains few options left for the survivors of 9/11 to get the money they need for healthcare and living expenses. Congress is running out of time before the end of the year, and has just one more must-pass piece of legislation left for the Zadroga Act to piggyback on: the omnibus bill, a year-end spending package Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to prevent a government shutdown.
A second bill for tax extenders is also likely to get a vote, though while some Republicans expressed a preference to include it there because they think it might be easier to find the money necessary to pay for the $3.5 billion full extension there, some Democrats are wary of that approach because the bill isn't as guaranteed to fly through Congress.
"Now it'll go in the omnibus or the tax extenders bill," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told the Daily News, who expressed a preference for the latter because there's "more floating money" in the bill to pay for the Zadroga Act.
"Until it's done it's not done," he said. "There's no guarantee at all."
McConnell ignored questions about his role in blocking the legislation following a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, another member of GOP Senate leadership, said that GOP leaders tried to keep the highway bill "confined to transportation priorities" and keep out "extraneous items" but promised that the Zadroga issue "will be addressed" by the end of the year.
"It's got a lot of bipartisan support, lots of us on both sides of the aisle realize that's got to be fixed, got to be addressed, so that has to get done," he said, saying that it will "more than likely" be passed as a part of the omnibus.
Advocates for the Zadroga Act are optimistic it can be done then. But they know they're under the gun.
"We just have seven legislative days left. We've got to get this thing done," said Maloney. "I can't think of a better holiday gift to our heroes and heroines than passing this bill."