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

ByABC News
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."