WASHINGTON — The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill ensuring that a victims compensation fund for the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money.
The 402-12 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to call a vote before Congress goes on its August recess.
Lawmakers from both parties hailed the House vote, which comes a month after comedian Jon Stewart sharply criticized Congress for failing to act. Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, told lawmakers at an emotional hearing that they were showing "disrespect" to first responders now suffering from respiratory ailments and other illnesses as a result of their recovery work at the former World Trade Center site in New York City.
Stewart called the sparse attendance at the June 11 hearing "an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution." He later targeted McConnell for slow-walking previous version of the legislation and using it as a political pawn to get other things done.
Stewart said Friday that replenishing the victims fund was "necessary, urgent and morally right."
Replenishing the fund will not fix the health problems of emergency workers and their families, but it would remove "a 15-year, unnecessary burden placed by their own government upon them," Stewart said at a Capitol news conference.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers credited Stewart for raising the profile of the issue, which has lingered on Capitol Hill for years.
"You made it too hot to handle" in the Senate, Pelosi, D-Calif., told Stewart, praising him for shining his "celebrity spotlight" on the issue.
The bill would extend a victims compensation fund created after the 2001 terrorist attacks through 2092, essentially making it permanent. The $7.4 billion fund is rapidly being depleted, and administrators recently cut benefit payments by up to 70%.
The Congressional Budget Office said in a report this week that the bill would result in about $10.2 billion in additional compensation payments over 10 years, including more than $4 billion for claims already filed. The bill would require that victims whose compensation payments were reduced because of the fund's declining balance be made whole.
"This was not a hurricane or a flood or a tornado. This was the largest terrorist attack ever on American soil," Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said in a floor speech before the House vote. "As Jon Stewart testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee, these terrorists weren't saying 'Death to Tribeca'. This was an attack on all of us as Americans and we all should be voting yes today as Americans."
Zeldin and other lawmakers noted that one of the bill's most prominent advocates, former New York City police detective Luis Alvarez, did not live to see the bill's passage. Alvarez, who testified with Stewart at last month's House hearing, died June 29 at age 53.
Alvarez, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2016, traced his illness to the three months he spent in the rubble of the World Trade Center's twin towers after the attacks.
Alvarez and other first responders "shouldn't have had to come down here to fight on behalf of all of these other victims and first responders in the first place," Zeldin said. "Month after month, year after year ... how many first responders have made dozens of trips (to the Capitol) educating, advocating, passionately asking members of Congress for their support?"
The bill was renamed to honor Alvarez and other first responders.
"The first responders who rushed into danger on September 11th, 2001 are the very definition of American heroes and patriots," McConnell said in a statement after the House vote. "The Senate has never forgotten the Victim Compensation Fund and we aren't about to start now. We will consider this important legislation soon."