Congress Races to Pass 9/11 Health Care Bill


The U.S. Congress is racing to try and pass a 9/11 health care bill for the firefighters, police, ambulance crews and construction workers who worked at the Ground Zero site of the 2001 terrorist attack in New York.

Over the weekend supporters of the $6 billion bill, which will provide care for ailing emergency workers, claimed to have secured the votes they need.

The issue has been an open wound in New York for years and among 9/11 first responders there is only contempt for politicians who have blocked the bill.

The legislation is named after New York policeman James Zadroga, who was assigned to Ground Zero patrol for weeks after September 11.

Mr Zadroga's family says he inhaled a poisonous mix of pulverised cement, glass and asbestos and in January 2006 he died of lung failure. He was just 34.

But to the fury of the first responders, the bill was caught up in an argument over extending Bush-era tax cuts earlier this month.

Senate Republicans had refused to pass anything until that deadlock was broken.

Now, with the hours ticking down until the Christmas break, Congress is absorbed by argument over ratifying the stalled START treaty, and supporters of the 9/11 cause are worried that once again they will miss out.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is demanding a vote before politicians leave the capital for the holidays.

"It's a vote on whether we should stand by those who stood by America in its hour of greatest need," he said.

"It's a vote on whether we should fulfil our obligation to the men and women in uniform and in hard hats who we rightly call heroes.

"And it's a vote on whether the thousands of Americans who are suffering from 9/11-related illnesses will at least have the peace of mind that their government has not abandoned them."

New York Democrats say they have cut the cost of the bill and now have the votes, but there is no guarantee it will get to the floor of both houses in time.

"I think there are plenty of safeguards to ensure that that money isn't abused, but what's important is that we ought to take care of those who took care of us," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Construction worker John Feal, who lost part of his foot in an accident while working in the wreckage of the twin towers, is in no mood for another delay.

He says he is bringing a busload of 9/11 responders to Washington DC to watch.

"You can bring this message back to the House, because we're going to get this bill passed in the Senate, but if the House screws around, believe me I'll be there to be a pain in their ass," he said.

"They say this is a New York issue - this is a national issue. I will not yield to anybody when my friends and colleagues are sick and dying."

The city's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, says he was one of 1,400 officers who have needed treatment.

"Three hundred and ninety-one forced to retire, 59 have died. 23 on September 11 and 36 since that horrific date," he said.

"The connection between their actions and the illnesses has been shown beyond a doubt by rigorous medical review."