Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met with 9/11 first responders on Tuesday after comedian and advocate Jon Stewart accused McConnell of having used the victim's compensation fund as a "political football."
"McConnell made a commitment he's going to help get a piece of legislation that's going to pass the House in July for a vote in August in the Senate. We wanted it as soon as possible, and to get the Senate Majority Leader's commitment means a lot," John Feal, a recovery worker at the World Trade Center site and a longtime activist, said Tuesday after the meeting with McConnell at the Capitol.
"They work for us. The chairs that they put their a--es in, the pens that they use, the pads that they write on, we pay for that sh--," Feal added. "That’s us. They work for us. Mitch McConnell works for us. He works for all of you guys. Today Mitch McConnell promised to work for us. I’m going to take him for his word."
McConnell has been criticized by advocates of the legislation to extend the $7.4 billion fund, which will run out of money in December 2020, claiming his inaction in the past has stalled the progress of legislation to replenish the fund. The Justice Department said in February the victims' compensation fund is being depleted and benefit payments are being cut by up to 70 percent, a source of deep frustration for advocates who want to see victims and families afforded financial security to cope with lingering diseases from the attacks.
Joined by other first responders from the NYPD, Feal expressed that he is "a ball of emotions," particularly in light of the impending death of his friend and colleague, retired NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez who gave his final interview to Fox News' Shepard Smith on Thursday as he suffers from liver failure after his battle with cancer, a result of his service after the September 11th attacks.
"We're going to leave here and Luis Alvarez is going to die," Feal said, choking up with emotion. "In that meeting, we gave McConnell Alvarez's badge. We wanted the Senate Majority Leader to be reminded of people like Alvarez. He's got his badge now. If he strays from his commitment, then we'll go back into attack mode but for now, we'll put down our swords, pick up our rakes, we'll farm and be with our friends who are sick and dying."
The House Judiciary Committee passed a reauthorization bill for the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund on Wednesday, where it will now move to the full House and is expected to pass with bipartisan support.
Advocates have rallied to keep the bill alive until 2090, the expected lifespan of first responders who developed illnesses from inhaling toxic fumes during recovery efforts and while clearing rubble at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. following the terrorist attacks in 2001.
More than 2,000 firefighters, police officers, federal agents and other first responders have died from 9/11-related diseases and that number is expected to climb over time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's World Trade Center Health Program.
Critics have opposed making the bill open-ended, while advocates have cited the terminal illnesses that many first responders continue to face. More than 40,000 people have applied to the fund and over $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund with about 21,000 claims still pending.