Congress can never do anything about the growing numbers of people still dying from 9/11, but the Senate voted Tuesday to ensure the words “Never Forget” will never be just a slogan for the cops, firefighters and everyone else who ran toward the twin towers after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
The Senate voted 97-2 to pass the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” and send it to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law Friday.
Only Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee voted against it.
Sitting in the Senate gallery for the passage was Alvarez’s son, David, and Pfeifer’s widow, Caryn.
Both said the passage would never fill the void left by the two men, who both died of 9/11-linked cancer after battling to win passage of 9/11 legislation.
“It’s bittersweet. Today is finally the day that we can put this thing to rest,” said Caryn Pfeifer. “We’re going to the White House, and then all the heroes can rest in peace. Their families will be taken care of, they can get through their treatments and not worry.”
The bill will enshrine in law the federal government’s ability to ease the economic losses and pain still being inflicted on people who spent days and months breathing the fumes and toxins unleashed after the South and North Towers of the trade center imploded, and smoldered for months.
The new bill would cost at least $10.2 billion over the first 10 years, but would be open-ended to deal with whatever the need turns out to be until 2092.
Pfeifer died in 2017, after helping in the push to renew 9/11 legislation in 2015. That bill made health care permanent, but funded only five more years of the Victim Compensation Fund.
The Department of Justice administrator slashed its payouts by more than half in February, saying most of the money was gone.
Soon afterward, Alvarez made his first visit to D.C. with dozens of others from the FealGood Foundation advocacy group. He explained at the time that he was taken care of, but wanted to make sure others were as well.
He returned in June, weaker and gaunt, with former talk show host Jon Stewart to deliver his denunciation of Congress for making responders come to Washington again and again. He and Stewart’s testimony galvanized attention, and a month and a half later, the bill is about to become law.
It means hundreds of ailing survivors and responders who have seen their compensation slashed will be made whole, financially.
David Alvarez said he was proud of his father, and glad the bill named for him passed. But it will never make the Alvarez family whole.
“It’s difficult to be here without my father,” Alvarez said. “I’m at peace knowing that he’s at rest and at peace knowing that this is passed, and his name will live on with it. But having to go through many more milestones without him in my life will be very difficult.”
The bill had to overcome two hurdles at the last minute. GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tried to pay for the bill by cutting most other federal programs. Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee tried to cap the fund at $10.2 billion. Both failed by wide margins.
Bill supporters feared that Lee’s amendment could leave future victims and responders going hat in hand to Congress yet again, especially younger ones who were in school in lower Manhattan in 2001.
Lila Nordstrom, who attended Stuyvesant High School at the time, watched the bill’s progress with a sense of disbelief.
“I honestly thought that I’d have to come here every five years for the rest of my life. That’s what my whole adult life has been basically,” said Nordstrom, who started lobbying for new 9/11 legislation 13 years ago as she saw friends and acquaintances getting sick.
“I really assumed that because survivors get a lot less of the discussion, that us younger survivors might really lose out, that they might decide this doesn’t need to be extended this long,” she said. “So I’m actually thrilled and very excited not to feel the obligation to threaten to come back again.”
The battle to build both a permanent health care program and a compensation program that will last throughout responders’ lives has been slow and hard.
It began after the original Sept. 11 aid packages ended in 2004, and picked up a little bit of momentum when the death of NYPD Detective James Zadroga was ruled to be because of the poisons he breathed at ground zero.
The first 9/11 health and compensation bill was named after him, but didn’t pass until 2010. If faced stiff opposition from Republicans and apathy from many Democrats, including then-President Barack Obama.
One dying firefighter, John McNamara, had left his wife Jennifer a list of dying wishes. One was to give Obama his FDNY badge to urge the president to support the bill.
But Jennifer McNamara never did. The Obama White House never made the pledge John McNamara sought. The bill passed just days before Christmas, with many lawmakers already out of town. It had been drastically reduced, and saddled with restrictions. One Florida Republican forced the inclusion of a rule that barred any responder from joining the treatment program unless they were run through the terrorism watch list. The prohibition remained.
In 2015, Senate and House leaders agreed they would pass the renewal, but fought over how to do it, trying to use it as leverage for other measures. It was eventually attached to a budget bill, with the compensation program capped at five years.
With the money running out, responders came back, along with Stewart. After Alvarez’s dramatic testimony, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to meet with responders, led by FealGood Foundation founder John Feal. Alvarez was in hospice by then, and couldn’t make the trip. He sent his detective shield. This time, the badge had its intended effect.
McConnell agreed to advance the bill. “It was my honor to receive it. It was my honor to reiterate that the Senate’s ironclad commitment to getting this done was never in doubt,” McConnell said.
The advocates had not been certain, though they praised McConnell afterward.
The question that plagued them was why it took so long.
“This should never have been a fight, it should never have taken this long to pass this bill and make it permanent. It should never have been a question,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the lead sponsor in the Senate.
Asked why, Stewart didn’t really have an answer to the question, either.
“I wish it could have been answered 15 years ago,” he said shortly before the vote. “It would have saved an awful lot of time and energy and effort and heartache, especially those who are suffering and sick and dying who had to come down.”
The former host of “The Daily Show” has become one of the responders’ most eloquent advocates, and grew close to many, especially Pfeifer. He said it wasn’t so much joy that he would be feeling, but something closer to relief and admiration for what the responders did, then and now.
“We’ll spend some time today thinking about the friends that we lost, who gave their last moments, really, to come down to Washington fighting for their brothers and sisters that they felt should get what they deserved, and have that burden eased on them,” Stewart said.
It reminded him of why those people were so valued in the first place.
“In that moment of chaos and destruction, there was a group of men and women that ran towards it, and they rebuilt that foundation, by hand, literally bucket to bucket, for months,” he said. “They responded in seconds and they didn’t leave for years. Unfortunately, they continue to pay a price for that heroism and sacrifice. But these are the types of men and women that we have to stand up for, who stand up for us.”