House Okays 9-11 Health Package

Both houses of Congress raced to craft a last-minute deal Wednesday to salvage a $4.2 billion plan to cover some health benefits of first responders who fell ill after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

The bill compensates victims who developed cancer and other illnesses after inhaling the toxic cloud of dust and debris that formed in Lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers fell.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) initially filibustered the deal, imperiling the chances in the Senate. In fact, Coburn's filibuster threatened to extend the House and Senate sessions, perhaps culminating in a showdown on the legislation on Christmas Eve or even after the holiday.

"I've never understood why one senator can trump the wishes of 99 others," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), noting a quirk in Senate rules that actually favors the minority rather than the majority.

Coburn finally relented and carved a pact with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mike Enzi (R-WY). In fact, after the Senate okayed the deal, Gillibrand called out Coburn for helping make the bill better as they sliced the pricetag of the legislation.

Then the bill moved to the House. The House previously approved a different version of the bill, so it now had to okay the Senate's work.

The question in the House was whether enough members would be around to approve the package once the Senate pinged it next door with its changes.

"We're kind of thin," conceded Pelosi when asked about how many members had gone home for the holidays.

218 members are necessary to constitute a quorum.

The House eventually okayed the bill 206-60.

"We were kind of sweating it," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) who represents Ground Zero.

"A lot of people didn't believe this bill would pass," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

All votes against the legislation came from Republicans with one exception: Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) who lost re-election last month.

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) voted no. Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-OH) was notably absent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rarely votes, as is custom for the speaker. But she cast a yea vote.

At least two lawmakers flew back to vote: Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) who flew back from Puerto Rico where she was tending to her ailing mother.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) was the last member to come in and vote... just before they closed it around 5:38 pm.

She was wearing sweat pants and New Balance track shoes, no coat and crying.

I asked her why it was so important for her to come back.

"I was torn between two important things that I care about," Velazquez said fighting back tears. "My mother and the 9-11 responders."

Valazquez says her 90-year-old mother is in San Juan and suffering from bleeding ulcers.

Valazquez said her plane landed at 5:20 pm and she came directly to the Capitol to vote. She will return to Puerto Rico tomorrow morning.

The legislation now heads to President Obama for his signature.