The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a $10 billion bill on Friday to renew the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, prompting deceased first responder Luis Alvarez’s brother to say he’s “looking down and saying ‘Let’s get this done.’”
The bill passed by a 402-12 vote and makes the funding stream permanent. It now goes to the Senate where Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will bring it up for a vote.
The move comes just weeks after Alvarez, an NYPD detective, died of cancer blamed on Ground Zero. Alvarez galvanized attention to the new bill with his stark testimony alongside comedian Jon Stewart before Congress just weeks before his death.
“We’re not celebrating yet,” said Phil Alvarez, Luis’ brother. “I’m sure Lou is looking down and saying, ‘Let’s get this done already, let’s get this done.’”
Dozens of 9/11 first responders and relatives came to Washington, D.C., to watch the vote along with Stewart. The comedian, who has become a celebrity public face of the fight, reminded supporters that the bill still faces a final hurdle in the Senate.
“This bill is necessary, it’s needed, and it’s morally right,” Stewart told a news conference, flanked by 9/11 survivors.
Phil Alvarez said relatives were fulfilling his brother’s last wish for them to push the bill to final passage.
“We made him a promise, that … we would be here to follow in his honor,” Phil Alvarez said. “We’re trying to fill some footsteps that my brother left us to fill.”
The new funding is needed because the original $7 billion that was allocated in 2015 has just $2 billion left because of increasing costs of care and fast-spiraling number of victims falling ill.
The special master who oversees the Victim Compensation Fund cut all pending payouts by half and future ones by 70% in February in an effort to stretch out the cash as long as possible.
Alvarez’s sister, Aida Lugo, said her brother showed incredible strength to testify publicly as he clung to life.
“I have a newfound amazement at what he was able to put out … at the end of his life for something that he was not personally going to get anything out of,” she said, struggling with emotion. “He was doing this for others.”
Lugo, Alvarez and Stewart wiped away tears as they left the chamber after the vote.
Eleven of those who voted against the bill are conservative Republicans who sometimes oppose spending measures. The twelfth is Justin Amash, a libertarian who recently quit the Republican Party.
The new funding would include just over $4 billion to fill the projected shortfall in the existing program, and would restore the cuts that have already been handed to hundreds of responders and victims.
The remaining $6 billion would go to battle expected future illnesses, including cancers that are likely to be diagnosed in coming years.
Half of all payouts are already going to deal with cancer costs.
A Congressional Budget Office estimate says the percentage will rise to 80% with cancer care and compensation being much more expensive than breathing disorders that dominated claims in the first years after the attacks.
The official death toll from the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, stands at 2,977 people. Since then, 2,355 people registered in the World Trade Center health program have died.
Officials estimate about 410,000 people were exposed to toxic chemicals during the attacks and in the weeks afterward when the collapsed Twin Towers were a smoking pile of rubble.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said there is no excuse for the Senate to delay since 72 members have co-sponsored the bill.
“We will never forget what these heroes did for our nation,” she said. “We owe them nothing less.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has repeatedly called for McConnell to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate as a stand-alone bill without amendments about other issues that can delay passage.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill if passed, he said.
“These families have waited too long, there’s been too much delay. It should be made permanent and done (as soon as possible),” Schumer said.