9/11 health bill held up over price tag

After facing intense public pressure from comedian Jon Stewart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, promised earlier this week to fully fund health care benefits for 9/11 first responders. The legislation, however, is still held up over lawmakers' disagreement over whether the bill needs to be paid for.

"The men and women who put their lives on the line... are waiting for Congress to act because we supposedly have to pay for the way in which we take care of their health care," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, lamented on the Senate floor Wednesday. "None of us should leave Washington for the holidays without passing this bill."

After years of advocacy work on behalf of first responders, Congress finally passed the Zadroga Act in 2010 to assist first responders who became sick from working at Ground Zero. However, the health care provision of that bill expired in September and will run out of funding early next year.

Lawmakers in the Senate have promised that an extension of the program will be included in an omnibus bill spending bill currently under negotiation. While budget hawks have expressed concern about paying for it, Menendez pointed out that a group of senators is simultaneously negotiating a bill that would extend around $800 billion in tax breaks (for instance, it would extend write-offs for business investments and repeal a specific tax in the Affordable Care Act) -- and that would go unpaid for.

"I don't understand how the rules don't apply to large corporations that will reap billions of dollars, but somehow those rules are asserted when we are trying to take care of the men and women who responded on that fateful day," Menendez said. "We should accept our profound, collective responsibility -- not charity -- but responsibility to act on this legislation."

At a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday, New York Sens. Chuck Schumer, D, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D, stood with 9/11 responders and New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton calling for a permanent reauthorization of the health and compensation programs.

"They carried bodies, ran into towers and dug in the rubble for remains," Gillibrand said. "We're reminded that more police officers have died since 9/11 than on 9/11 and we're reminded how shameful it is that Congress has not passed a permanent reauthorization of the health and compensation programs."

Schumer said Democrats are optimistic Congress will reauthorize the programs, but said negotiating over it is not an option.

"To hear some of my colleagues use Zadroga as a trading piece, like some bargaining piece...the lives of our first responders are not a bargaining chip and can never be. You don't trade it...no way," Schumer said.

Meanwhile, in the House, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, has proposed paying for the legislation by making wealthy Medicare recipients pay more in premiums. Upton's office said in a press release that the premium increase would amount to about $70 a month for wealthy Medicare recipients.

"For millionaires to pay $70 dollars more a month - that's the cost of a monthly issue of Architectural Digest or one bottle of a fancy champagne - it would free up approximately $1.9 billion for World Trade Center first responders. It should be an easy choice - 9-11 heroes before millionaires," the press release said.

While President Obama has considered the idea of means-testing in Medicare, groups like the AARP and Democrats are largely opposed to making the national health care program more like a "welfare" program.