Jon Stewart, 9/11 First-Responders Hit the Hill

The former “Daily Show” host is continuing a lobbying crusade to renew expiring legislation that provides health care to September 11 first-responders.

Former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart delivers remarks outside the U.S. Capitol, September 16, 2015.
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Sept. 16, 2015, 2:48 p.m.

Comedi­an Jon Stew­art had a mes­sage for the hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers and po­lice who des­cen­ded on Cap­it­ol Hill Wed­nes­day to pres­sure Con­gress to re­new health care be­ne­fits for 9/11 first-re­spon­ders, which be­gin to ex­pire next month: He’s sorry.

“I want to apo­lo­gize to all the men and wo­men, first-re­spon­ders, that you had to come down here today,” Stew­art said at a rally in front of the Cap­it­ol Wed­nes­day morn­ing. “I’m em­bar­rassed. I’m em­bar­rassed for our coun­try, I’m em­bar­rassed for New York, I’m em­bar­rassed that you, after serving so self­lessly, with such hero­ism, have to come down here and con­vince people to do what’s right for the ill­nesses and dif­fi­culties that you suffered be­cause of your hero­ism and be­cause of your self­less­ness. Nobody had to lobby you to rush to­ward those towers that day.”

But Stew­art, formerly of The Daily Show, also offered a warn­ing to first-re­spon­ders: “Today on the Hill, you will be ex­posed to pos­sibly tox­ic levels of bull­shit and ar­rog­ance.”

Stew­art was joined by hun­dreds of first-re­spon­ders as well as Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand and Reps. Car­o­lyn Malo­ney, Jerry Nadler, and Peter King, all mem­bers from New York who have sponsored the James Za­d­roga 9/11 Health and Com­pens­a­tion Reau­thor­iz­a­tion Act. Gil­librand and oth­ers have cred­ited Stew­art’s con­sist­ent rib­bing of mem­bers of Con­gress who op­posed the bill in 2010 with help­ing to get it passed in the first place.

The bill, which provides com­pens­a­tion and health care be­ne­fits to 9/11 first-re­spon­ders, be­gins to ex­pire this month. It in­cludes the World Trade Cen­ter Health Pro­gram, which pays for health care for first-re­spon­ders and will ex­pire on Septem­ber 30, though the fund can be drawn from for an ad­di­tion­al year. It also in­cludes the Septem­ber 11th Vic­tim Com­pens­a­tion Fund, which provides ad­di­tion­al funds to vic­tims and ex­pires in Oc­to­ber 2016.

There may already be some move­ment on the is­sue. Asked Wedneday wheth­er the pro­gram should be ex­ten­ded and wheth­er that could be part of a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell said: “I’m go­ing to be meet­ing with first re­spon­ders later today my­self, and we do plan to ex­tend the pro­gram and the com­mit­tees of jur­is­dic­tion in the House and the Sen­ate are ac­tu­ally work­ing on the de­tails now.”

The ex­act de­tails of what Mc­Con­nell is pro­pos­ing re­main un­clear, but New York Sen. Chuck Schu­mer re­spon­ded: “That is great news at last.”

The bill al­most died in 2010 and was ini­tially voted down in the House, amid Re­pub­lic­an con­cerns over the cost of the bill and that it was, at the time, per­man­ent. Gil­librand and oth­ers helped to ne­go­ti­ate a deal with Sens. Tom Coburn, now re­tired, and Mi­chael En­zi, to shorten its au­thor­iz­a­tion to six years, a deal that passed the Sen­ate un­an­im­ously.

Sup­port­ers now hope to push Con­gress to make both pro­grams per­man­ent, cit­ing ad­di­tion­al re­search link­ing dis­eases to tox­ins found at the 9/11 site and sim­il­ar funds set up for coal-miners and former nuc­le­ar work­ers. More than 4,100 first-re­spon­ders and sur­viv­ors have con­trac­ted can­cer re­lated to 9/11, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, while more than 33,000 have at least one re­lated ill­ness or in­jury.

So far, the bill has 151 co-spon­sors in the House, in­clud­ing 33 Re­pub­lic­ans, and 37 spon­sors in the Sen­ate, in­clud­ing six Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers.

Asked why the reau­thor­iz­a­tion is needed now, while both pro­grams will con­tin­ue to op­er­ate for the next year, Stew­art said: “My feel­ing is if you have stage 4 can­cer and you get a let­ter of no­ti­fic­a­tions say­ing that the medi­cine you rely on may be end­ing in a year, that to me is an ur­gent-care situ­ation. … These ill­nesses that they have are not on five-year cycles.”

Stew­art noted that of the four first-re­spon­ders he in­ter­viewed on his show in 2010, one of them, John Devlin, has “already passed away” from re­lated ill­nesses.

T.J. Gil­martin, a first-re­spon­der who ran to the towers from a high rise he was build­ing in Man­hat­tan on 9/11, noted that there could be many more cases of ill­ness to come, long after the cur­rent Za­d­roga bill ex­pires. “I have an as­bes­tos su­per­visor’s li­cense. As­bes­tos and meso­the­lioma, there’s a 20-year lag time on that. … What is five years go­ing to do? It’s not ex­actly 20 years. [In] 2020, 2022, you could have a lot of guys dy­ing from lung can­cer,” he said. The Meso­the­lioma Cen­ter says the latency peri­od can typ­ic­ally run any­where from 20 to 50 years.

The hun­dreds of first-re­spon­ders, and their fam­il­ies, who came to the Cap­it­ol Wed­nes­day in­clude Joseph Za­d­roga, whose son James was the first New York Po­lice De­part­ment of­ficer to die of com­plic­a­tions from the tox­ic chem­ic­als at the site of the World Trade Cen­ter towers. They hope to vis­it 535 con­gres­sion­al of­fices, thank­ing those mem­bers who have already signed onto the reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill and try­ing to con­vince mem­bers who haven’t to join the ef­fort.

John Feal, a first-re­spon­der and the founder of the Feal­Good Found­a­tion that ad­voc­ates for fel­low 9/11 re­spon­ders, helped to or­gan­ize the rally and of­fice vis­its on Wed­nes­day. “We’re here to chal­lenge Con­gress to be an Amer­ic­an, to be a hu­man be­ing with com­pas­sion,” Feal said at Wed­nes­day’s rally. “But we’re also not go­ing to take no for an an­swer. …  I’m go­ing to put my foot in their ass. I’m not go­ing to sug­ar­coat this—foot to ass—be­cause this is about hu­man life. We’re talk­ing about men and wo­men dy­ing.”

Feal said that he and oth­er first-re­spon­ders have now made 14 trips to Wash­ing­ton this year to urge mem­bers of Con­gress to per­man­ently reau­thor­ize the Za­d­roga bill and have held 300 meet­ings with mem­bers be­fore Wed­nes­day’s rally. “They will re­mem­ber Septem­ber 16, not be­cause of a de­bate to­night, be­cause a bunch of hard-core ass-kick­ing 9/11 first-re­spon­ders walked the halls of Con­gress to fight for the tens of thou­sands that couldn’t be here,” Feal told sup­port­ers.

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