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Second Time's a Charm: House Approves 9/11 Health Care Bill

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AP2010

The House of Representatives Wednesday approved a controversial measure to pay for the health care costs of workers who became sick from toxic ash after working at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9-11.

The House defeated a similar measure in July.

During that effort, a majority of the House voted in favor of the measure. But Democrats handled the bill on the floor under a provision that required a two-thirds vote for passage.

The defeat of the legislation ignited a firestorm between Democrats and Republicans as they argued who was responsible for the failure of the package.

Republicans opposed the bill because of concerns about how the government would pay for it. Democrats brought the legislation to the floor under a different set of groundrules to prevent Republicans from altering the measure and excluding illegal immigrants from qualifying for the health benefits.

Wednesday's effort required a simple majority. The vote was 268 to 160.

A bevy of New York firefighters in formal uniform and emegency workers gathered in the public viewing gallery to watch the House vote. They let out an enormous cheer once it was clear the bill would pass. House rules bar the public from verbally approving or disapproving of action on the House floor. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-NY) presided over the House at the time, but allowed the Ground Zero responders to applaud and holler, despite the ban on participation.

"It was euphoria," exclaimed Hardol Schaitberger, the head of the International Association of Firefighters. "It was a thrilling moment for everyone."

After the vote, the firefighters poured into a stairwell just off the House floor. In an extraordinary scene, they were met there by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and members of the New York House delegation. Pelosi mingled among the firefighters who thanked her for rallying to pass the legislation.

"This is the Speaker who said she was going to get this done," exclaimed Schaitberger. "It could have just stayed on the shelf."

"Ground Zero will always be sacred ground," Pelosi said.

It's unclear what fate the bill might face in the Senate.

But Pelosi is optimistic. "I hope that the large margin (of victory) will be an eloquent message to the United States Senate that we want the bill passed and we want it passed soon."