By Julie Shapiro
MANHATTAN — The 9/11 health bill sailed through both houses of Congress Wednesday afternoon and is poised to become law, following years of advocacy and down-to-the-wire negotiations this week with Republicans who threatened to block it.
The bill, which will provide free healthcare for sick 9/11 rescue and recovery workers, along with survivors of the attack, now goes to President Obama, who has promised to sign it.
"It's taken too long, but help finally is here," U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said from the House floor shortly before the 204-60 vote.
The bill that passed Wednesday afternoon is a compromise version that cuts the price tag down to $4.3 billion, from the original $7.4 billion, and lasts just six years, rather than 10, in response to Republican objections, sources said. The new version also caps lawyers’ fees at 10 percent, sources said.
The bill would provide thousands of first responders and survivors of the attack with free expert medical care and would reopen the Victims’ Compensation Fund.
"The Christmas miracle we’ve been looking for has arrived," Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand said in a joint statement Wednesday, shortly before the Senate vote.
For the core group of first responders who have been fighting for the bill for years, Wednesday’s success almost defied belief.
"I’m shaking right now," said Glen Klein, 52, a member of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit on 9/11, who was in Washington Wednesday to watch the vote. "I can’t even speak, I’m so excited."
Klein, a Long Island resident who has developed asthma and gastrointestinal problems after spending more than 800 hours at Ground Zero, said he was especially happy that the first responders who are even sicker than he is will get the care they need.
"Christmas came early," Klein said.
Allan Tannenbaum, a TriBeCa resident who documented first responder illnesses through a project called “9/11: Still Killing,” said the political machinations over the bill have been an "emotional roller coaster."
"It's a huge relief," Tannenbaum said of the vote.
While Tannenbaum had hoped the health bill would offer more than just six years of coverage, he said the compromise version was "certainly better than getting nothing."
With full Republican support in the Senate after the negotiated changes, the bill was able to move forward under a speedy unanimous consent vote Wednesday, avoiding a longer process that allows more time for debate.
The bill then went to the House, where it was debated briefly before passing. The House already passed the bill earlier this year but had to approve the new changes. Of the 60 people who voted against the bill Wednesday, 59 were Republicans.
Time was of the essence for the vote because Congress is about to adjourn for Christmas, and the new House taking office in January has a Republican majority and would be unlikely to support the bill.
Formally known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the bill is named for an NYPD detective who died of a respiratory illness in 2006 after inhaling toxins at Ground Zero.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a statement Wednesday saying the vote fulfilled a "national duty" to support those who risked their lives on 9/11, and Gov. David Paterson called it a "moral imperative."
Catherine McVay Hughes, a downtown community leader who frequently traveled to Washington to fight for the bill, said the free specialized healthcare was important to the many local residents suffering from difficult-to-diagnose symptoms in the wake of the attacks.
"People who have tricky diseases normal doctors might not be able to diagnose will get the treatment they need," Hughes said.
The bill's passing sends a clear message, she said: "If there is another terrorist attack, you will be taken care of."