WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislation to provide medical care for firefighters and other responders to the September 11, 2001 attacks passed the Congress on Wednesday after backers struck a deal to end a Senate Republican blockade of the measure.
The so-called James Zadroga 9/11 health bill was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on a vote of 206-60 after it cleared the U.S. Senate by voice vote.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill.
The bill would provide medical treatment for emergency responders sickened by toxic dust inhaled at the World Trade Center site in New York in the days following the attack. Republicans had balked at the initial $7.4 billion cost of the 10-year bill, which had been approved by the House, and blocked Senate passage.
Backers early on Wednesday struck a deal whittling down the size of the bill to a five-year bill at a cost of $4.3 billion. The Senate quickly approved it without debate and the House .
“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but always remember legislation is the art of compromise. This is $4.3 billion better than nothing,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
“This is the day we’ve all been working toward and waiting for. Our Christmas miracle has arrived,” said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Lawmakers had been working nine years to win congressional approval of the measure, she said.
The bill provides for a health program for responders sickened by the toxic debris and establishes a victim compensation fund. Victims have five years to file claims.
The cost is paid for by an excise tax on government purchases from companies in countries that are not part of the World Trade Organization procurement arrangements. The U.S. business community had objected to that provision.
The money collected will also help reduce the deficit by $450 million over 10 years, according to estimates.
Republican opponents had taken considerable heat from firefighters and other emergency workers as well as Democrats and conservative media outlets for blocking the bill.
“Some have tried to portray this debate as a debate between those who support 9/11 workers and those who don’t,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “This is a gross distortion of the facts. There was never any doubt about supporting the first responders. It was about doing it right.”
It is one of the final pieces of legislation to clear the Congress before it was expected to adjourn later on Wednesday. A new Congress is seated in January and Republicans will take control of the House. Backers would have had to start the legislative process all over if they had failed to push the measure through the current Congress.
Thousands of firefighters, police and other rescue and cleanup workers have experienced respiratory problems and other illnesses from working at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers.
The bill was named after New York Detective James Zadroga who worked at the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero for about three weeks following the attacks. He began to have difficulty in breathing and died in 2006.
Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing Cynthia Osterman