The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to ensure a victims’ compensation fund related to the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money, fulfilling a pledge made by President Trump and ending years of uncertainty as the fund rapidly depleted.
Lawmakers sent the bill to President Trump’s desk after a 97-2 vote in favor of the legislation. Only two Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, voted no.
After the vote, September 11th first responder John told reporters, “As for Rand Paul and Mike Lee, told you so. We whipped your a–es.”
“While I support our heroic first responders, I can’t in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded,” Paul wrote on Twitter. “We have a nearly trillion dollar deficit and $22 trillion in debt. Spending is out of control.”
He added: “As I have done on countless issues, including disaster relief and wall funding, I will always take a stand against borrowing more money to pay for programs rather than setting priorities and cutting waste.”
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Feal had told Fox News that Trump contacted him by phone on Tuesday and told him the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund bill would be passed by the Senate that day, and signed into law on Friday.
The fund was slated to run out by 2020, potentially affecting nearly 95,000 first responders and victims.
“The bill’s going to get passed today, and the bill’s going to go to the president, who’s going to sign it on Friday. The White House called me this morning — for the men and women that I keep bringing down here after 15 years, and I’m just so ecstatic for them” Feal said on “America’s Newsroom” Tuesday.
The vote came after New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, reached an agreement with Lee and Paul to bring up the bill with two amendments sponsored by the GOP senators.
Paul and Lee had been blocking a vote. Paul said he was concerned about its effect on the deficit, while Lee called for ensuring the fund had proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse.
As part of the deal, Democrats agreed to allow Lee and Paul to bring up amendments addressing their concerns. Gillibrand called the GOP amendments “needless and callous” and predicted they would be defeated easily.
Lee’s amendment failed 32-66, while Paul’s failed 22-77.
Gillibrand said 9/11 first responders and their families have had “enough of political games.” The legislation had 74 Senate co-sponsors, including Gillibrand, and easily passed the House last week.
The bill would extend through 2092 a fund created after the 2001 attacks, essentially making the fund permanent. The $7.4 billion fund has been depleyed rapidly, and administrators recently cut benefit payments by up to 70 percent.
Schumer, D-N.Y., called the vote the end of a “long struggle.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the House-passed bill would result in about $10.2 billion in additional compensation payments over 10 years, including more than $4 billion for claims already filed.
“This vote is long overdue,” Gillibrand said at a news conference announcing the bipartisan deal. “No more excuses. We have to finish the job.”
The agreement with Lee and Paul came as comedian Jon Stewart again blasted Republicans who had held up the bill. He said last Wednesday night on Fox News Channel it was “absolutely outrageous” that Paul blocked Gillibrand’s request to approve the bill by acclamation earlier in the day.
Stewart could be seen smiling in the Capitol building after the vote on Tuesday.
Paul supported the 2017 GOP tax cut that added hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt, “and now he stands up at the last minute … to say we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the 9/11 first responder community,” Stewart said.
RAND PAUL NIXES BID TO FAST-TRACK EXTENSION OF 9/11 VICTIMS COMPENSATION FUND
Lee’s amendment could have forced beneficiaries to return to the Capitol to ensure the fund did not run out of money, Stewart said, calling that “an abomination.”
Lee said on the Senate floor Thursday that he was not blocking benefits for 9/11 first responders, but merely trying to ensure that “the program created in their honor in fact benefits them.”
A spokeswoman for Paul said he was “not blocking anything. He is simply seeking to pay for … this legislation.”
Speaking to Fox News, Feal said the vote would help tens of thousands of first responders.
“Listen we’re not going to celebrate. We’re not going to jump up and down. I’m sure we’re going hug and cry. We’re going to exhale. But we’re going to help tens and thousands of people. Getting the legislation passed just pads the resume, but the friendships in the 9/11 community, on Capitol Hill and formed with all of you guys in the media, that’s what means the most to me.”
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Feal claimed 20,000 victims have been given money from the government and said he expected tens of thousands more to step forward, once the additional resources would be available. He also cited the late first responder Luis Alvarez — who passed away in June — and was an outspoken advocate of the fund, saying 18 more people have died since his passing.
“20,000 people and change have been compensated. Another 20 are waiting. We expect another 20 to come forward with more illnesses. And these aren’t just us saying this [sic]. This is what … the CDC has predicted,” he said.
Fox News’ Nick Givas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.