WASHINGTON – A day after chemotherapy, Sept. 11 first responder Robert Digiovanni stood angrily outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office and railed about politics interfering with life-or-death issues.
Digiovanni, who has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, had lobbied for legislation to extend expired health care benefits for himself and others exposed to toxic dust after the 2001 attacks in New York. The extension was not in a transportation bill released this week, as some had expected; Digiovanni and his fellow firefighters blamed the Republican leader.
"I am very scared, very nervous," Digiovanni said Wednesday. "Here we are, all dying, and they're playing politics."
The health care fund aids first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center after the attacks, worked there for weeks and now have illnesses such as pulmonary disease and cancer. The program expired this year. Federal officials say the fund will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money does not come.
Supporters hoped an extension would be attached to and paid for in the highway bill, one of the last pieces of legislation expected to pass this year. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats said it was McConnell, R-Ky., who stopped the deal.
McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, countered that no final proposal ever was advanced and negotiations continue.
There is at least one more opportunity left in 2015: a year-end spending bill that could pass as early as next week.
First responders and New York-area lawmakers planned a Capitol Hill rally Thursday to press for that approach.
Lawmakers say they are close to a deal to pay for extending medical monitoring, treatment and compensation for the first responders and others harmed due to the attacks. The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at Ground Zero, first became law in 2010.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Wednesday he would back a permanent extension. But he suggested paying for the fund's more than $4 billion cost with cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid; Democrats quickly rejected that idea.
New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who has aggressively pushed for extension of the 9/11 funds, said Upton's proposal was a positive step.
"The key thing to me is saying he wants it permanent," King said. "One way or another, it's going to happen."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., agreed, saying Upton's proposal shows momentum.
"We're working on the right way to pay for it," she said.
GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was reviewing Upton's proposal and hoped to have a deal by the end of the year.
The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said they are close to a final agreement on the compensation portion of the law, which provides payments to people who suffered physical harm after the attacks.
Outside McConnell's office, other firefighters and responders said they were tired of traveling to Washington to ask for something that they think should be a done deal.
Paul Iannizzotto, a former New York City firefighter who was in the north tower of the World Trade Center when the south tower fell, said he was forced to retire in his 40s because of his many illnesses related to cleaning up the site.
"Our union benefits, our health benefits don't cover all of these meds," Iannizzotto said. "Some of us are looking at alternative meds."
John Feal, a former World Trade Center demolition worker and leading advocate for sick responders, said the group was never able to talk to McConnell directly. But he said he was optimistic they can get the law extended in the spending bill.
"The emotions are running high today," Feal said. "We know we're in the 11th hour, we know next week is a real deadline."
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