Coburn Moves to Block 9/11 First Responders Bill as Some Republicans Urge its Passage

Debt Commission member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., right, speaks during a meeting of the commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010. Fellow Commission member Andrew Stern is at left. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

UPDATED 6:12 p.m. ET

Amid mounting pressure from Democrats and a growing handful of Republicans to pass a bill that would provide health care benefits to first responders who were at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn announced on Monday his intentions to block passage of the legislation.

He tells Politico that he "wouldn't allow the bill to move quickly" due to "problems with parts of the bill and the process Democrats are employing" to pass it.

Coburn  defended his position in a Tuesday morning interview on Fox News, arguing that "this is a bill that's been drawn up and forced through Congress at the end of the year on a basis to solve a problem that we didn't have time to solve and we didn't get done."

Coburn also argued that the bill, entitled the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, "hasn't even been through a committee." Coburn added: "We haven't had the testimony to know."  (ThinkProgress notes that on June 29, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions - on which Coburn sits - held a hearing on the bill. But Coburn's office says that doesn't amount to having gone "through a committee.")

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of Republican commentators has begun to pressure GOP senators to revise their positions, arguing that the health of first responders is a sensitive national issue - and that opposing it could be politically unwise.

"Why wouldn't we take care of their health care?" wondered the conservative-leaning talk show host Joe Scarborough during his MSNBC show "Morning Joe" on Tuesday. "It's just like taking care of veterans' health care... It can't be a good move for Republicans to oppose a bill for the firefighters and the cops on 9/11."

Scarborough also questioned the argument - posited by some of those opposing the bill - that health care for 9/11 first responders should be covered by New York residents. "How did this become a New York issue?" Scarborough wondered. "That is like Pearl Harbor becoming a Hawaii issue in 1951. It's ridiculous."

Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has already made public his opinion that "every Republican" should support the bill - but in a Fox News appearance on Monday night, he plead his case further. "There are people who need medical care right now, and frankly, the clock is running out on them," he said. "Their lives are fading away, even as we sit here talking about it."

Shep Smith, the host of Fox News' "Studio B," individually targeted Republicans who refused to discuss the issue with him on the air.

"We called a lot of Republicans today who are in office at the moment," he said on Monday. "These are the ones who told us 'no': Senators Alexander, Barrasso, Cornyn, Crapo, DeMint, Enzi, Grassley, Kyl, McConnell, Sessions, Baucus, Gregg, and Inhofe. No response from Bunning, Coburn, Ensign, Graham, Hatch, and McCain."

"Why does no one want to talk about this?" he continued.

New York's Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer have made a slew of recent television appearancesurging support for the bill - and now they say they have the votes to pass it.

But even if the bill secures the necessary 60 votes to get past a filibuster in the Senate, the House would have to approve any changes to its version of the bill before the end of the 2010 session - and a time-delaying procedural blockage by Coburn could derail efforts to do so as the lame duck Congress draws to an end.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has urged the Senate to take the bill up as soon as possible in order for the House to have time to approve the revised version.

"My plea to Senator Reid is that if you're going to send us anything that we need to deal with, send it, frankly, by [Tuesday]," Hoyer told The Hill on Monday. "I don't think that's possible, but my members want to get home for Christmas, and I think bringing them back between Christmas and New Years -- hopefully, I'd like to avoid that."

"Obviously the closer we get to Christmas the less likelihood there is of members being willing to stay to finish business that may or may not come from the Senate," Hoyer told reporters today, adding that he was "hopeful that we can deal with it tonight."

Hoyer said he not yet made a decision on whether or not he would be willing to bring Congress back after Christmas to pass the bill if necessary.

In a press briefing this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs emphasized the president's continuous support for the legislation -- and took Republicans to task for standing in its way.

"It seems at the end of a long year around the holiday season a pretty awful thing to play politics about," he said. "But that's a decision that 42 Republican senators will have to make."

Update: Coburn today posted a policy paper outlining his concerns with the bill. The measure, he says, "provides overly generous funding, failing to acknowledge existing public and private benefits and past compensation," creates a new $3.2 billion entitlement program and raises taxes.

"Dr. Coburn is continuing to work with the sponsors of the 9/11 bill to find a way to help those who need our aid without creating new burdens for other Americans," John Hart, a spokesperson for the senator, said. "He's disappointed the majority waited until the last minute to try to pass this bill but hopes an agreement can be reached."


Lucy Madison
Lucy Madison is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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