WASHINGTON - The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to add billions of dollars to a fast-dwindling compensation fund for 9/11 workers who are now sick or dying - capping an emotional political debate over ongoing deaths linked to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The legislation, which was championed by gravely ill first responders and former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, will extend the compensation program for decades, at an estimated cost of $10.2 billion for the first 10 years.
It passed 97 to 2, drawing cheers and applause from first responders and their families in the Senate gallery.
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, voted against the measure. "While I support our heroic first responders, I can't in good conscience vote for legislation which to my dismay remains unfunded," Paul said.
The measure has already passed in the House, so it will now head to the White House for the president's signature.
After the vote, Stewart was hugged by a weeping John Feal, who as a construction worker-turned-activist has spent years lobbying for 9/11 health care programs after being injured while working at Ground Zero.
Wearing a blue firefighter T-shirt, Stewart said Feal and other advocates "lifted this 9/11 community on their shoulders, and they carried them home, and I will always be so proud to be associated with it. . . . There have been too many funerals, too many hospices. These families deserve better."
The moment was bittersweet, Feal said.
"We're not celebrating, we're not spiking a football," he said. "Too many people are dying or have died."
In urging passage of the bill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., noted that as lawmakers in Washington were preparing to vote, in New York the family of former NYPD detective Christopher Cranston was holding a memorial service for him. Cranston, who worked at Ground Zero and the New York City landfill where much of the World Trade Center debris was examined, died Saturday of cancer.
"The eyes of the nation are looking at this chamber today to see if we finally will stand by our 9/11 heroes for the rest of their lives," Gillibrand said. "This should never have been a fight, it should never have taken this long to pass this bill and make it permanent."
The issue of prolonging the program became an urgent demand earlier this year, when the special counsel overseeing the fund warned that future payouts would be cut by as much as 70% due to a growing number of death and cancer claims draining the $7 billion that previous legislation had set aside for ailing victims.
Last month, Ground Zero workers and their families testified in an emotional hearing featuring former NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, who urged Congress not to close the door on others who would become sick after him.
Alvarez died weeks later, and lawmakers decided to add his name to the legislation. After testimony from Alvarez and Stewart, the House passed the measure overwhelmingly.
Stewart went on to attack Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for what he said was a long record of slow-walking legislation for 9/11 health issues. McConnell denied that he opposed the bill and issued a statement Tuesday morning urging support for the measure.
Even with McConnell's support, the bill faced a temporary setback last week when Paul and Lee urged amendments that would require the government to cut spending elsewhere to pay for the program.
Those amendments were defeated by wide margins Tuesday.
The fund's first incarnation was created for those who were killed or injured in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when commercial airliners were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
That 9/11 fund shut down in 2003, but in the decade that followed, doctors and scientists tracking the health of Ground Zero workers found links between that exposure and a host of illnesses, including cancer.
In 2010, Congress created a new version of the fund to provide health care and compensation for those who became sick after their work at the disaster sites, and for those who lived or worked close to those sites who were also exposed.
The current version of the victim compensation fund is due to stop accepting claims in 2020, but the new bill would extend the program for seven decades - presumably long enough to cover everyone who was ever exposed to the toxic debris.
To date, the fund has paid about $5 billion to approximately 21,000 sick or dying claimants. About 700 payments were for deaths that happened long after the attacks. Officials have warned that at some point in the near future, the number of deaths caused by Ground Zero-linked illnesses will surpass the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11.
This article was written by Devlin Barrett and Kayla Epstein, reporters for The Washington Post.