Published September 10, 2011
Lawmakers have had plenty on their plate since the Sept. 11 attacks. Three wars. A Wall Street meltdown. A mortgage meltdown. Two recessions. Natural disasters from Katrina to Irene. A credit downgrade. Epic battles over health care, immigration and the deficit.
But a handful of politicians have managed to keep the Sept. 11 attacks -- its lessons and its memory -- at the core of what they do throughout. For the past decade, these lawmakers have put Sept. 11 at the top of their portfolio and more or less kept it there.
Debates over the trials of Guantanamo prisoners, the Ground Zero mosque and health care for first responders all hinged on lawmakers' demands -- regardless of their philosophical perspective -- that the victims of those terror attacks be respected, even if it means they're accused of capitalizing politically.
While many politicians will mark the 10-year commemoration with a statement, and surely invoke Sept. 11 whenever a question of American security arises, these lawmakers have made clear that they will keep the country's worst terror attack at the center of countless debates.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but includes some of the folks with the largest portfolio of Sept. 11 legislation.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
On Sept. 11-centric topics, King is arguably Congress' most vocal member.
It should come as no surprise that in the latest iteration -- after fellow New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm said he'd drop a bill to make a national monument out of the so-called World Trade Center Cross -- King was one of the first to sign on. (The cross -- two intersecting beams found in the Sept. 11 wreckage -- earlier this year was the subject of a lawsuit filed by an atheist group after it was featured in a publicly funded museum)
The cross dispute was just the latest draped in the memory of Sept. 11.
Last year, King was at the forefront of the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, a proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero. King and other Republicans called the proposal offensive, eventually drawing in President Obama who stood up for the developers' "right" to build it. But in the face of such outcry, Obama stopped short of a full endorsement of the project.
That was after King got involved, successfully, in opposing the proposed transfer of Guantanamo detainees to New York to stand trial. More recently, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee caused a ruckus on Capitol Hill by hosting a series of hearings on Islamic radicalization in America. He kept Sept. 11 as the backdrop.
"This committee cannot live in denial," he said at the first hearing in March. "The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks on September 11."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer showed he's no pushover on Sept. 11 issues when he defied the Obama administration in early 2010, and joined local officials in opposing the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees -- notably Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- to New York for civilian trial. Under pressure from both parties, the Justice Department eventually abandoned the idea, which Schumer earlier this year called "wrong-headed."
It may have been the most high-stakes clash over Sept. 11 but Schumer has been involved in a host of other under-the-radar campaigns.
Earlier this year, Schumer moved to crack down on an apparent Sept. 11 commemorative coin scam.
Ahead of Sunday's ceremonies, the New York senator helped to make sure the USS New York -- made out of World Trade Center steel -- would anchor off lower Manhattan for the occasion.
He was active in pushing for a long-stalled bill to increase health benefits to Sept. 11 first responders.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Schumer cited that bill as a fulfilled "promise" to Ground Zero workers. He touted legislation over the past decade ranging from the PATRIOT Act to the compensation fund set up for victims. He praised Congress for coming together time and again to minimize the chance of another Sept. 11 and help its victims, and urged fellow lawmakers going forward to confront current challenges "imbued with the spirit of 9/11."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Menendez was the original author of the so-called Zadroga bill -- providing health benefits to first responders at Ground Zero -- dating back to 2006. That version didn't pass, but got the ball rolling before Congress ultimately approved the bill following a series of grueling public debates.
The New Jersey senator has gotten involved in several other campaigns. He was among the lawmakers urging the Justice Department to investigate allegations of hacking by News Corp. subsidiaries in Britain -- citing claims that reporters may have tried to obtain phone data of Sept. 11 victims. After the attacks, he pushed for the creation of the Sept. 11 commission and has since pushed to have its recommendations implemented.
Last year, Menendez defended the use of full-body scanners at airports, and was quoted accusing critics of living in a "post post-September 11 world."
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska
As then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Don Young had considerable influence in moving money around, and shortly after Sept. 11, became the sponsor of the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act.
The bill compensated the airlines billions of dollars in direct and indirect losses due to the attacks and helped them gain insurance as well as regain the trust of fliers.
It also developed a victims compensation fund which in the space of 33 months paid out more than $7 billion to the survivors of 2,880 people killed and to the 2,680 people injured in the attacks and rescue.
The fund, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, also of BP Deepwater Disaster and TARP executive compensation fund-fame, awarded payouts on average of $400,000, with some reaching as high as $8.6 million. In exchange, families agreed not to sue the airlines or elsewhere for their losses. The legislation was the source of considerable fighting over the value of a life, but in the end it helped to restore some dignity to people who were unlikely ever to be made whole again.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Nadler, an 11-term lawmaker representing Brooklyn, sponsored legislation in the days immediately after the attacks to set up expedited death benefits for families of public safety officers. He worked with Schumer on setting up a memorial coin and with other sponsors of the Zadroga bill to give benefits to first responders. Nadler is still in pursuit, hoping to expand the Zadroga legislation to provide free health care to first responders afflicted with cancer.
But Nadler has also been repeatedly criticized for his position on counter-terrorism efforts, including his opposition to the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. He has been accused of trying to politicize the date in an effort to diminish President Bush over the war in Iraq. As one of the most liberal members of Congress, Nadler appears to relish the fight and insists he is seeking to protect the America that the terrorists tried to destroy.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Technically not a lawmaker, Bloomberg has been instrumental in initiating several of the debates that have riled so many a lawmaker, first responder and religious advocate. Whether offering support for the Ground Zero mosque, banning clergy from the 10-year commemorative ceremony or angering the parents of family members opposed to dumping sifted trade center dust in a landfill, Bloomberg has come off as unsentimental or dismissive.
In fact, however, Bloomberg, who was endorsed by Rudy Giuliani -- "America's Mayor" who himself famously led the city's recovery in the immediate aftermath of the attacks -- is himself a legacy of that day.
The three-term mayor is chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum foundation, he has given at least $15 million of his own money to the memorial and is leading Sunday's service. He has also insisted on offering a calm voice in the face of hysteria, including taking the subway to work and insisting that potential terror threats not diminish New York's brash embrace of freedom.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.
He's not in Congress anymore, and obviously is dealing with issues that extend far beyond Sept. 11. But Weiner's public performance in support of the Zadroga bill cannot go unmentioned.
Though he wasn't one of the authors of the bill, in the summer of 2010, Weiner took to the House floor in a blistering speech to assail Republicans for opposing the bill. The animated and bellowing congressman directed his anger squarely at fellow Sept. 11 defender King, who was actually a sponsor of the bill along with Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Carolyn Maloney and Michael McMahon, and supported it. But Weiner accused King of providing cover for his colleagues by claiming the procedure used prevented the bill from passing.
"You vote yes if you believe yes!" Weiner shouted. "It is a shame! A shame!"
The bill was eventually revived at the end of the year, its spark no doubt kept alive by Weiner's thundering speech.
Others With a Voice
Some of the other lawmakers who earn an honorable mention for their Sept. 11-targeted work are Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the original sponsor of the U.S. Patriot Act that is still in effect and shepherd of tighter border security and visa rules that are an outgrowth of Sept. 11; former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who many may not remember was the House sponsor of legislation that led to the Department of Homeland Security; former Sen. Tom Daschle, who gave his name to the legislation authorizing the use of military force in Afghanistan three days after the attacks; and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who has been a co-author of several pieces of major legislation.
Lastly, to be included in the list is President George W. Bush, who is also not a lawmaker but whose emotional and improvised response standing on the wreckage of the World Trade Center (and his determined persistence in the years following), instilled Americans with the sense of strength and occasional unity that all who remember that day look back to for inspiration about what this nation still strives to be.