WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A day after undergoing chemotherapy, 9/11 first responder Robert Digiovanni stood angrily outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office, railing about politics interfering with life-or-death issues.
Digiovanni, who has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, had been lobbying for legislation to extend expired health care benefits for himself and others who were exposed to toxic dust after the 2001 attacks in New York. But the extension wasn't included in a massive transportation bill released this week, as some expected, and Digiovanni and his fellow firefighters blamed the Republican leader.
"I am very scared, very nervous,'' Digiovanni said Wednesday as he and others protested. "Here we are, all dying, and they're playing politics.''
The health care fund provides aid to first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center after the attacks, worked there for weeks and now suffer from illnesses like pulmonary disease and cancer. The program expired earlier this year, and federal officials say it will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money doesn't come.
Supporters were hoping an extension would be attached to and paid for in the highway bill, which is 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 who stopped the deal.
McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, countered that no final proposal ever was advanced and negotiations continue.
"If there was any issue that was bipartisan, nonpartisan, that was above politics, it would be providing health care to these heroes and heroines of 9/11," Rep. Carolyn Maloney told 1010 WINS. "They didn't stop and think, they went into burning buildings to save the lives of others. We need to be there to save their lives."
There is still at least one opportunity left in 2015 -- a massive 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 the legislation, which would extend medical monitoring, treatment and also compensation for first responders and others harmed after the attacks. The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at Ground Zero, first became law in 2010 after a debate over the bill's cost.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Wednesday he will support permanently extending the health fund, which is what supporters have asked for. But he suggested paying for the fund's more than $4 billion cost with several proposed cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid, ideas that were immediately rejected by Democrats.
New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who has aggressively pushed for extension of the 9/11 funds, said Upton's proposal is a positive step in the negotiations.
"The key thing to me is saying he wants it permanent,'' King said Wednesday. "One way or another, it's going to happen.''
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, said he is reviewing Upton's proposal and hopes 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, both 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.
"Most of the major issues have been resolved, but we are continuing our talks with all stakeholders in order to have a final bill completed by the end of the year,'' Goodlatte said in a statement late Tuesday.
Outside McConnell's office, other firefighters and responders say they are sick of traveling to Washington to ask for something that they think should be a done deal.
David Prezant, chief medical officer with the fire department, said this compounds the misery of sickened responders.
"They are hearing that we're running out of money, their stress levels are increasing," he told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he doesn't get it.
"It's amazing that the commonality of the cause is so clear and yet, we still have to fight for this legislation," de Blasio said.
Paul Iannizzotto, a former New York City firefighter who was in the north tower of the World Trade Center when the south tower fell, says 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. But he said he is optimistic they will be able to get the Zadroga law extended in the spending bill, despite the political frustration.
"The emotions are running high today,'' Feal said. "We know we're in the 11th hour, we know next week is a real deadline.''
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
for more features.