After nine years, the GOP relented and passed Dec. 22 a health bill for 9/11 responders in what turned out to be the not-so-lame-duck session of the 111th Congress.
The Zadroga Bill, named after James Zadroga, the New York City detective who died after complications from inhaling 9/11 dust, was held hostage by the Republicans right up to the last minute. Even the final bill bears the marks of the Republican Party's drive to cut costs at the expenses of working Americans, the nation's heroes included: the original bill was to span ten years at a cost of $7.4 billion. To win GOP support, Senate Democrats had to make cuts to the bill, which now spans only five years at a cost of $4.3 billion.
The bill, passed first by the Senate and then the House, also compensates survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. Under immense public pressure, Republicans finally agreed to the smaller $4.3 billion bill. Union leaders, community organizations, churches and media personalities, for days before final passage, had expressed shock over how a political party willing to spend $700 billion for tax cuts for the rich couldn't see its way clear to supporting a few billion dollars in health care for sick and dying national heroes.
Just two days before the final vote, Oklahoma Republican senator Tom Coburn went on Fox News in an attempt to save face for himself and fellow GOP obstructionists by saying the bill was being held up because it had not gone through the committee process. Within hours major news outlets across the country were reporting how the bill had in fact gone through that process and how Coburn had failed, on June 29, to attend a meeting of his own committee, which had held the hearing. Footage of Coburn's empty chair at that hearing, surrounded by the occupied chairs of the rest of its members, was viewed by tens of millions of TV viewers across the nation.
Among those suffering in the nine-plus years since the terrorist attacks are fire fighters, rescue workers, responders, cops, emergency medical personnel, military personnel, construction workers, clean-up workers, residents, area workers and school children. Dozens of firemen and 31 policemen have died since the attacks because of related ailments including rare cancers and emphysema.
The bill covers 71,000 workers and 38,000 others, according to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the chief sponsor of the measure.
In the weeks before passage, millions of Americans were reminded again of the heroism of the first responders.
They heard from Harold Schaitberger, president of the Fire Fighters, how a fire chief from California flew in and worked 16 hours a day, digging for the remains of the 343 New York fire fighters who were buried when the Twin Towers collapsed on top of them. They heard about the fears sick and dying responders have about caring for families as they, themselves, become increasingly disabled.
The passage of the bill is seen as a crowning achievement for the 111th Congress, which goes down in history as having written more laws affecting more people than any Congress since the Great Society of the 1960s. The legislative achievements include health care reform that gives 32 million Americans coverage, the most sweeping Wall Street reform since the Great Depression, the spending of $1.67 billion to revive the economy, including tax cuts and stimulus to create 3 million jobs, construction of roads and bridges, initial steps towards green energy projects, an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military, and a massive nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
Polls this week give President Obama an approval rating of 56 percent for his handling of the lame duck Congress, with 41 percent dis-approving.
Observers see a possible weakening of solidarity in the ranks of Republican senators, with a number of them having crossed over on several issues to support President Obama.
Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski backed all four of President Obama's signature initiatives in the lame duck session - repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the tax cut compromise, the START Treaty and the DREAM Act.