The House on Wednesday followed the Senate's lead, approving legislation to fund medical care for first responders sickened after the September 11 terrorist attacks and giving the New York delegation a big win in the waning hours of the congressional session.
Amid cheers from firefighters who were seated in the gallery, the House voted 206-60 to send the bill to President Obama for his signature. Approximately half of all Republicans, 89 members, skipped the vote, as did 79 Democrats. The Senate unanimously cleared the legislative package hours earlier.
“This is a fitting way to end the 111th Congress,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a bill cosponsor.
But the speed with which lawmakers acted as the lame-duck session came to a finish belies what had become an increasingly hostile debate between Democrats and Republicans that was not immediately reflected in the wide vote margins.
“This has been a long process, but we are now on the cusp of the victory these heroes deserve,” Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was the major holdout on the bill, which received greater coverage from national media outlets over the past week after comedian Jon Stewart dedicated the year's final episode of The Daily Show to the stalled bill.
“I’m pleased the sponsors of this bill agreed to lower costs dramatically, offset the bill, sunset key provisions, and take steps to prevent fraud,” Coburn said in a statement. “Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity.”
The agreement would reduce the bill’s cost from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion to treat workers' injuries and illnesses resulting from exposure to toxic dust and debris at Ground Zero. A portion of the money would go toward reopening the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
The deal also would limit access to the health-treatment program and compensation fund to five years per person, down from the 10 years permitted in the House-passed bill, and caps attorneys' fees at 10 percent of a total award.
The legislation had seemed dead, but two events changed its course in the last days of the 111th Congress: the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pull the omnibus spending bill, which cleared the Senate schedule and made room for the 9/11 health bill; and Stewart’s coverage of the bill, which encouraged cable-news networks to also devote time to the issue.