US Congress passes aid package for 9/11 responders

The package provides $1.5 billion to monitor health rescue, cleanup workers.

Washington: After a last-minute compromise, Congress passed legislation on Wednesday to provide up to USD 4.2 billion in new aid to survivors of the September 2001 terrorism attack on the World Trade Centre and responders who became ill working in its ruins.

The House passed the bill on a 206-60 vote on Wednesday about two hours after the Senate cleared it on a voice vote as lawmakers raced to wrap up their work before Christmas. President Barack Obama has said he is eager to sign the measure, though some supporters of the bill have criticised him for not getting more involved in the fight.

The package provides USD 1.5 billion to monitor the health rescue and cleanup workers and treat illnesses related to ground zero. It also reopens a victims` compensation fund with USD 2.7 billion.

Republican Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, said the measure was long overdue. "It`s the right thing to do, and it`s the right time to do it," she said.

The bill was a product of a compromise involving Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Enzi of Wyoming. New York members of Congress had sought USD 2 billion more for the overall bill. They accepted the smaller amount in exchange for GOP critics dropping their opposition.

"The Christmas miracle we`ve been looking for has arrived," Schumer and Gillibrand said in a joint statement.

Schumer and Gillibrand had sought USD 6.2 billion and keeping the compensation fund open for 10 years.

"Every American recognises the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generation of opportunity," said Coburn, who led a GOP blockade against the bill. "This agreement strikes a fair balance."

The bill gained momentum with help from cable TV personalities. Among the biggest supporters of the package were Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who championed the bill and lashed its GOP foes on his Comedy Central TV program `The Daily Show`.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Congress for finally working out a bill.

"As we look forward to the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I am encouraged that our elected representatives in Washington came together and stood by those who were there for America in its hour of greatest need," Bloomberg said.

The compromise was reached after Democrats scheduled a showdown test vote for Wednesday afternoon and Republicans countered by threatening to run a 30-hour clock before allowing final Senate and House votes on the bill. That would have required keeping both the Senate and House in session for votes on Christmas Eve.

Backers worried that the bill would face a much tougher fight in the new, more fiscally conservative Congress where Republicans will have a stronger hand.

Bureau Report