By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Dozens of first responders and politicians gathered Thursday afternoon to cheer the long-awaited passage of the 9/11 health bill.
The $4.3 billion bill, which will provide five years of free healthcare and compensation to thousands of sick 9/11 rescue and recovery workers, along with survivors of the attack, passed both houses of Congress Wednesday, and President Obama has promised to sign it.
"We are here today to celebrate our Christmas miracle," said a beaming U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Gillibrand stood with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and members of New York’s Congressional delegation outside 7 World Trade Center, where the same group has gathered many times before to push for the bill.
Sen. Chuck Schumer spoke Thursday about the long, bumpy road to the bill’s ultimate success.
"We thought this bill was lost many a time," Schumer told the crowd.
Late Tuesday night, Schumer said he was trying to hammer out an agreement with staff from Sen. Mike Enzi and Sen. Tom Coburn’s offices, Republicans who strongly opposed the bill. At 1:30 a.m., the Republican staffers walked out without a deal, and Schumer said he nearly lost hope.
But at dawn on Wednesday morning, Schumer and Gillibrand spoke on the phone and decided to give a compromise one last try.
Less than 12 hours later, a modified version of the bill had passed both houses and awaited President Obama’s signature.
"That’s the lesson: Never give up," Schumer said.
He then turned to the dozens of rescue and recovery workers who surrounded him, and said, "Never give up, because we’re behind you all the way."
While President Obama’s signature on the bill appears all but certain, he is now on vacation in Hawaii and it is unclear when he will sign it. The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
After Thursday’s press conference, Paul Stein, with the New York State Public Employees Federation union, said the activists now needed to focus on ensuring that everyone who is sick knew about the new health benefits and potential compensation.
"We have to make sure everyone takes advantage of it," Stein said. "It’s important that we do not stop now."