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9/11 first responder says Congress 'continues to fail us'

Updated 5:15 PM ET, Wed June 12, 2019

Washington (CNN) - Two 9/11 first responders called on Congress Wednesday to support additional funding for aid workers, a day after comedian Jon Stewart delivered an impassioned plea to lawmakers to reauthorize the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

"He painted a landscape to let America know that over 95,000 people in the World Trade Center health program that are being treated across our great nation are being forgotten by our federal government, by Congress, a dysfunctional body of work who continues to fail us," one of the first responders, John Feal, said on CNN's "New Day" with John Berman.

Feal said before the hearing began on Tuesday he approached Stewart and pointed out what he said was apparent disinterest from some in the room, which helped prime Stewart for the moment when he said the comedian and longtime advocate for the responders "articulated our pain and suffering."

"I said, 'Can you see this one, he's falling asleep,'" Feal said. "I said, 'Do you see this one, he's on his cell phone.' I said it is disrespectful to those who came down here with cancer, that we're sitting here and they're not taking this serious enough."

Feal described Stewart as a "dear friend" with whom he has worked a lot, and that his whispered observation to Stewart about the hearing, along with presenting Stewart with an autographed jacket, put Stewart in the right emotional place for his impassioned speech.

"I know how Jon ticks," Feal said. "I know what the 9/11 community means to this man, and I knew he would be an emotional wreck by the time he got to the guys with the jacket."

In the interview, Feal praised House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, and said GOP leadership and the Senate had been obstacles in past authorization pushes.

Later on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to authorize the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund until 2090. The current law was renewed in 2015 and is set to expire in 2020. At the time of its last renewal, Congress appropriated $4.6 billion to the fund, bringing the total appropriated amount of the fund over the years to $7.4 billion.

"All responders and survivors, whether they got sick in 2015 or will get sick in 2025 or 2035, should be properly compensated," Nadler said. "Congress must act to make that happen."

The bill must be approved by the full House and then go to the Senate, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer tweeted Wednesday that the full House would vote on the measure before the chamber breaks for August recess.

"Now that @HouseJudiciary has passed H.R. 1327 to #Renew911VCF, I expect to bring it to the Floor for a vote before the August district work period," Hoyer tweeted. "First responders who ran into danger that day deserve certainty that they & their families will have the benefits they've earned."

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said earlier Wednesday that "shamefully it has always been a struggle" for Congress to provide for the first responders' health care as they get respiratory illnesses and cancers. "We are done with that," he said, urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put the bill on the floor as soon as the House passes it.

At a news conference on Tuesday, McConnell said, "We've always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way and I assume we will again."

The fund's administrator announced in February that there was insufficient funding to pay all claims. The fund has seen a significant rise in claims in the past two years -- over 24,000 claims in 2017, 2018 and January 2019. That's more claims than in the first five years of the fund combined -- when only 19,000 claims were filed.

The new bill does not call for a specific amount of funds but whatever sums necessary through 2090.

As Feal noted, the aftermath of the destruction from the 9/11 attacks has led to severe health impacts on first responders and recovery workers, including lung impairment and cancer, with thousands of death and injury claims.

Brian McGuire, another 9/11 first responder, told CNN that what he heard at the hearing was "heartbreaking" and said just recently, several 9/11 responders and recovery workers had died.

"We're fighting for those who can't be here, to voice their own help in their cause because they are too sick and they are dying," McGuire said.

Stewart said in the hearing that those not present at the hearing should be "ashamed," and he told CNN's Suzanne Malveaux after that Congress needs to fund the aid "indefinitely for the lives of these men and women and not for five years."

"We've all been through this too many times to not be skeptical," Stewart said. "When it happens, then we'll believe it, but trust me, it's not going to be a celebration, it's just going to be a sigh."

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.


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