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Senate poised to pass 9/11 victims bill, after votes demanded by Sens. Lee, Paul

In this file photo, former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart speaks at a September 16, 2015 Capitol Hill press conference to begin a day of lobbying of Congress by 9/11 responders suffering from health problems believed to result from exposure at Ground Zero. Stewart spoke at a Tuesday, June 11, 2019 hearing regarding passing legislation that would prolong a 9/11 victim's fund that is running out of money.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By FELICIA SONMEZ AND DEVLIN BARRETT | The Washington Post | Published: July 18, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday reached an agreement to hold a vote next week on legislation extending a victims compensation fund for 9/11 workers, following an emotional appeal by comedian Jon Stewart and first responders. The vote is expected to take place Tuesday.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's, R-Ky., office said the Senate will also consider two amendments — one offered by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, the other by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The 9/11 victims bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, with 73 co-sponsors in the Senate. But its progress stalled on Wednesday when Lee and Paul objected to a motion by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to approve the bill by unanimous consent.

Paul said Wednesday that he was objecting because any program that would last decades "should be offset by cutting spending that's less valuable." A spokesman for Lee said the Utah Republican was "seeking a vote to ensure the fund has the proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse."

At a Capitol news conference, Gillibrand and her fellow New York Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, hailed the agreement and predicted that the measure would pass overwhelmingly when it gets to the floor next week.

"We've already done a whip count. I am confident that the two amendments will be defeated and that we will get an overwhelming majority of senators for the vote to pass this bill and that the president will sign it," Schumer said.

The first responders, he added, "will soon finally have the peace of mind they deserve."

Gillibrand voiced gratitude to the first responders and Stewart, describing the comedian as "a heartfelt advocate" for the bill.

"His advocacy made such an extraordinary difference," she said.

The 9/11 victim compensation bill passed in the House, 402-12, following the death of a former NYPD detective, Luis Alvarez, who testified last month about the urgent need to replenish the fund. Officials say that money is fast running out, leading to payout reductions of as much as 70 percent for recent applicants.

The fund provides money to those who have contracted diseases that have been linked to exposure to toxic debris as they worked at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. Lawmakers created it in 2011. It has paid about $5 billion to approximately 21,000 claimants. About 700 were for deaths that happened long after the attacks.

Last month, McConnell was publicly rebuked by Stewart, former host of "The Daily Show," who lambasted lawmakers for dragging their feet on the measure.

A searing congressional hearing, featuring testimony from Stewart and the dying Alvarez, refocused public attention on the plight of the sick workers and the faltering fund.

On Wednesday night, Stewart turned his attention to Lee and Paul, accusing the two senators of "fiscal responsibility virtue signaling."

"It's absolutely outrageous," Stewart said during an appearance on Fox News.

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Paul responded on the same network Thursday evening, calling Stewart a "guttersnipe" and criticizing the 9/11 bill as a "completely irresponsible" measure that has only received support because senators are "overwhelmed" by the comedian's celebrity.

"If Jon Stewart could read, maybe he'd read the bill and say, 'Oh my God, who would vote for a bill that doesn't have a dollar amount in it?' " Paul said.

The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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