The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to permanently provide government health care to 9/11 first responders, but not without some drama, thanks to Kentucky’s senators.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the man former Daily Show host Jon Stewart once blamed for blocking the bill — lauded the legislation on the Senate floor and said it was never in doubt. But fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul cast one of two votes against it after defending his bid to slash federal spending to pay for the initiative.
The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund pays out claims for illnesses and deaths related to the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.
Stewart, who at various points chastised both Kentucky Republicans for slowing things down — and got called a guttersnipe by Paul — took a teary-eyed victory lap, along with a group of first responders and family members. They watched as the Senate voted 97 to 2 to send the legislation to President Donald Trump for his signature. Paul and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who had both sought to trim back the bill voted against it.
“Righteousness, sometimes, in this mangled town, sometimes prevails,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
McConnell, who after meeting with first responders last month promised a vote before the Senate left for its summer recess at the end of next week, was praised for keeping his word.
“I don’t always agree with his politics, but he was honest and sincere,” John Feal, a construction worker who was injured at Ground Zero and led the charge for the legislation on Capitol Hill said of McConnell. “Everything he said, he did.”
After McConnell agreed to a vote, Paul had irked Sept. 11 first responders and Stewart last week by blocking speedy passage of the legislation in the Senate. An agreement forged last Thursday paved the way for Tuesday’s vote.
Paul assailed his critics on the Senate floor Tuesday for questioning his motives, accusing a “mob” and “demagogues in this body” of creating what he said was “fake furor” and a “manufactured crisis.”
He said he was simply asking for a vote on an amendment to tie spending cuts to the legislation.
”It’s been part of the reason that I ran for office, that we shouldn’t add more debt to our country without trying to do something about it,” Paul said, noting that he’s tried to pair similar spending cuts to other measures, including hurricane relief and U.S.-Mexico wall funding bills.
“There are those of us who have been consistent that debt does matter,” Paul said, pledging he bore “no animus” to the 9/11 legislation.
Speakers at a press conference could not say the same about the senator.
“As for Rand Paul and Mike Lee: ‘Told ya so,’ “ Feal said, celebrating the lopsided victory. “We whipped your asses.”
Paul warned that the bill was just a warm up for a Senate vote next week on a two-year budget deal that raises the debt ceiling and hikes federal spending. above previously agreed levels
“It’s fiscal insanity,” Paul said of the deal forged by forged by the White House and House Democrats. The bickering parties, he charged, can get along “when it comes to spending money and adding to the debt.”
McConnell called the budget agreement the “best possible deal” under a divided government, noting that it skirts “unnecessary drama.”
9/11 bill sponsor Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, urged senators to reject Paul’s amendment, along with Lee’s, arguing that the first responders have waited long enough.
Lee’s amendment failed with a 32 to 66 vote and Paul’s failed by a 22 to 77 vote.
Paul said after the vote that although he supports the “heroic” first responders, “I can’t in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded. “
Gillibrand said Paul’s amendment on the 9/11 legislation would “cut every other government program,” including affordable housing programs and Head Start. Paul said it was a “very, very modest reduction” and wouldn’t touch programs like Medicare, Social Security and veterans programs.
Before Paul slowed passage of the legislation, first responders had targeted McConnell, accusing him of dragging his feet. But they emerged last month at the Capitol with a promise from the Kentucky Republican to hold the vote.
McConnell on the Senate floor Tuesday insisted the Senate’s “ironclad commitment” to passing the legislation “was never in doubt.”
“The Senate has never failed to attend to the fund before. We weren’t about to do so now,” said McConnell, whom first responders left with the badge of Luis Alvarez, a retired New York police detective who died in hospice in late June, weeks after he pleaded with Congress to replenish the fund.
Gillibrand on the Senate floor thanked McConnell for “staying true” to his word. And Stewart, who attended the Democrats’ weekly luncheon, thanked the Majority Leader for holding the vote as he passed him in the hallway. McConnell offered a slight smile.