EXCLUSIVE: Senate Strikes Deal on 9/11 First Responders Bill

Senator allows vote after cost of bill to care for 9/11 responders is cut $2 bn

December 22, 2010, 12:30 PM

Dec. 22, 2010— -- Senators on both side of the aisle came together to unanimously pass a bill to give continuing health benefits and compensation to first responders who got sick after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The bill passed after Senate Democrats struck a deal Wednesday with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who agreed to drop his objections when the cost of the bill was reduced by about $2 billion. The proposal later passed through the House, 206-60, and is headed for President Obama's desk.

Despite its popularity, the 9/11 health bill was delayed in Senate by Coburn and the Oklahoma Republican had come under withering criticism for opposing the bill on the grounds that it provided "overly generous funding" and included "unnecessary and duplicative compensation funds."

Coburn emerged Wednesday from a closed-door meeting that included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to reveal that that a deal has been worked out that will likely enable the bill to pass the Senate – and then the House – by the end of the day.

Under the deal, the total cost of the bill over ten years would be reduced from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion. Of that $4.2 billion, $1.5 billion will go to health benefits for the first responders, while $2.7 billion will go to compensation for them.

"I'll stand in the way of anything that doesn't make sense and doesn't spend our money wisely, so you know, it doesn't matter what the issue is, we're in such a hole, Jon, that we don't have the luxury of not getting things right," Coburn told ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "And so we've come to an agreement that costs less, doesn't allow double-dipping, doesn't allow exorbitant lawyer fees, and we've worked it out and so we're going to take care of the folks, but we're going to do it in a way that doesn't punish the people that are going to pay the bill."

"But the way you've been hammered on this, standing against the heroes of 9/11…," replied Karl.

"I'm used to being hammered," Coburn said. "I'm not standing against them at all. I'm standing for us as America, the realization that we have to do things efficiently and economically. We've worked out a deal now that spends a whole lot less money, accomplishes exactly the same thing, and does it in a way that protects our future. Every bill should have to go through that – and the fact that they don't is a problem. That's why we're $14 trillion in debt."

"So I don't mind taking the heat," he continued. "You know, as a physician I care about those people. As a citizen, I care about the firefighters of my own city and every other city. The fact is you can still do it right. So you take all the heat, but you still it get done. So what we need is more people taking more heat so we get the right things done."

"Everybody's come to an agreement. We've got a handshake. We're waiting for the paperwork. And it'll be a done deal by the end of the day. But had we not done that, we wouldn't have had it and they wouldn't have had it until next year. So the fact is we accomplished their goals and we accomplished protecting the future of the country."

"And saved some money?" he was asked.

"We saved a lot of money."

"A lot of people are sick and hurt and we need to take care of them. They deserve it. That's why it's such a bipartisan issue," Reid told ABC News when he emerged from the meeting.

The compromise mandates the closing of the Victims Compensation Fund within five years, limits fees paid out to attorneys, and closes loopholes that allow people to re-file claims that have previously been rejected by the Fund, a source told ABC News.

Ken Feinberg has been floated as a possible special master for the Fund, the source said.

In the past few days Coburn's threats to try to block Senate passage of the bill this year infuriated 9/11 first responders and lawmakers alike.

"Where's his heart?" asked John Feal, founder of the FealGood foundation, a non-profit organization pushing for the bill's passage. "Because it's not in the right place. These men and women behind me have gone eight Christmases suffering without any help from the federal government, so I question his heart."

"I believe we have the votes to prevail," said Schumer at a press conference on Tuesday. "The only thing standing in our way is people who will try to run out the clock."

"That is not fair, not right, and that flies in the face of America," he said.

"Enough enough enough with the delays!" he roared.

Now the bill appears set to pass the Senate this afternoon after the chamber ratifies the START nuclear treaty with Russia. The 9/11 bill would then need to be passed by the House, but that is expected to occur later this evening. If that happens, Congress could leave town for the Christmas break late Wednesday.

"We are on the verge of a Christmas miracle," Gillibrand told reporters a few days ago.

Now that miracle appears set to become reality.