The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill which would permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund Wednesday, the day after comedian Jon Stewart gave impassioned testimony in support of the bill in video that quickly went viral.
The bill will now go to the floor for a full vote in the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass. It's unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will take up the bill in the Senate, although Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Wednesday that he was "imploring, pleading, even begging" McConnell to bring the bill to the floor as soon as it passes in the House.
Stewart, the former host of "The Daily Show," gave emotional testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Tuesday, at times broke down in tears and shouted at the lawmakers, calling them "shameful."
"I can't help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is ... a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one ... shameful," said Stewart at the outset of his remarks. A little over half of the 14-member subcommittee members were present, mostly Democrats.
Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010, over opposition from some Republicans who balked at its $7 billion price tag. The act was reauthorized in 2015 for 90 years. But a portion of the law — the Victim Compensation Fund — was only funded for five years, through the end of 2020. The fund aimed to provide necessary financial support for the thousands who suffered serious medical issues, including a spate of cancer diagnoses, after the 2001 attacks.
Several members of the New York congressional delegation, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, both Democrats, and GOP Rep. Peter King, have introduced the Never Forget the Heroes Act of 2019 to reauthorize the Victim Compensation Fund. It also has the support of New York's two senators, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Stewart has long been a champion for the cause, first devoting an entire episode of "The Daily Show" to the political debate over the Zadroga Act back in 2010. He's since become one of the most vocal advocates for 9/11 responders, repeatedly defending the right to health care coverage for those who responded and ran toward the falling towers.
Stewart was disgusted by the small number of members assembled for Tuesday's hearing, calling the showing an "embarrassment to this country" and a "stain on this institution."
"You should be ashamed of yourselves for not being here," he added. "Accountability appears to not be something that occurs in this chamber." Stewart expressed concern that such legislation like the Never Forget Act would just be punted like a "political football" and attached to riders in massive budget bills.
"Why this bill is not unanimous consent is beyond my comprehension," Stewart admonished. He also lambasted Congress for those that consider the measure a "New York" issue.
"More of these men and woman are going to get sick and they're going to die, and I'm awfully tired of hearing this is a 'New York issue,'" he said. "Al-Qaeda didn't shout 'death to Tribeca.' They attacked America."
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