By Julie Shapiro
WASHINGTON, DC — The 9/11 health bill failed to clear a major hurdle on Thursday after backers couldn't get enough votes in the Senate to ward off a Republican filibuster.
The $7.4 billion bill, which would provide medical treatment for thousands of first responders and residents who got sick after 9/11, needed 60 supporters in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. The procedural vote to end the debate and move forward with the bill went down in a 57-42 vote along party lines.
Republicans have vowed to delay all legislation until Democrats signed on to an extension of Bush tax cuts, and they did not make an exception for this bill.
The window is rapidly closing on the 9/11 health bill, more than nine years after the attacks. If the bill does not pass the Senate before the end of this year, it would have to return to the newly Republican House of Representatives in January, which would likely kill it.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who sponsored the bill, vowed Thursday to continue fighting for it.
"The idea that tax cuts for millionaires would derail this legislation is simply outrageous and offensive," Gillibrand said in a statement. "The men and women who rushed to the burning towers and worked for hundreds of hours on the pile did not delay and the Senate should not have delayed either, certainly not to give tax breaks for millionaires. We should not have to wait for tax deals to do what’s right."
The bill has one last chance this year, as Democrats hope to bring it back to the Senate before Christmas, ideally after a deal is struck on the tax cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after Thursday's vote that he thought a deal on the tax cuts could come as soon as this afternoon.
The 9/11 health bill would reopen the victims’ compensation fund and would also provide free, specialized healthcare to the recovery workers and downtown residents, students and office workers who are suffering following their exposure to toxins on 9/11. Studies have linked respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments to World Trade Center dust, and many first responders and residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
Anthony Flammia, 48, an NYPD officer who worked more than 200 hours at Ground Zero, said it was frustrating to see the Senate act against the bill. Flammia suffers from chronic sinusitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep apnea and nerve, joint and muscle pain but still traveled to Washington this week to lobby Senators for their support.
"This further adds to the pain of the 9/11 responder community," said Flammia, a Long Island resident. "It was a callous thing to do."
Catherine McVay Hughes, a longtime lower Manhattan resident and vice chairwoman of Community Board 1, said the legislation is a life-or-death matter for people who are suffering.
"This Senate vote is politics at its worst," Hughes said. "It stinks just like the toxic air and fires that hung over our community on 9/11 and during the long recovery process."
Local politicians also expressed disappointment.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the vote "a devastating indictment of Washington politics, a tragic example of partisan politics trumping patriotism."
U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, said in a statement that the Republicans’ "show of partisanship is callous, calculated and extremely selfish in the face of thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors who are now sick and dying."
Nadler and Maloney plan to urge the House to add the 9/11 health bill to the tax cut package, so both could become law at once.
The bill is formally known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named for an NYPD detective who died of a respiratory illness in 2006 after working on the wreckage at Ground Zero.
The act has already passed the House of Representatives, and President Barack Obama has pledged to sign it into law.