Under fire from Jon Stewart, Mitch McConnell tells 9/11 first responders he will help health bill

Pilloried by comedian Jon Stewart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to a vote by August for 9/11 first responders grappling with lingering illnesses from the toxins they inhaled rushing to the three sites targeted in the 2001 terrorist attacks, a group that met with McConnell said Tuesday.

And if he doesn’t, the contingent of 9/11 first responders who met with him made sure he won’t forget, leaving McConnell with the badge of Luis Alvarez, a gravely ill retired New York police detective who pleaded with Congress earlier this month to replenish the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund.

“If he strays from his commitment,” warned John Feal, a construction worker who was injured at Ground Zero. “Then we’ll go back into attack mode.”

But Feal described a meeting in the Kentucky Republican’s office at the U.S. Capitol that was respectful and productive.

“Today Mitch McConnell promised to work for us and I’m going to take him at his word,” Feal said. “Today we challenged his humanity and he passed.”

McConnell’s office didn’t respond to questions, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, praised McConnell on the Senate floor Wednesday for agreeing to schedule a vote.

“That’s an important commitment, and I want to thank the Leader,” Schumer said. “We’ve been struggling for years to get not a quarter, not half, but the full victims’ compensation fund.”

Still, Schumer warned that Congress could still “fumble the ball” and that he’d keep tabs on the legislation.

Retired New York firefighter and Sept. 11 first responder Kenny Specht said he believes McConnell understands that the health care fund “is doing great work” but is running out of money to treat more first responders.

“For the first time he said he sensed the urgency,” Specht said. “He used that term himself.”

Specht said McConnell told the first responders to leave the “politics” of the legislation up to him. The fund is set to expire in 2020 unless Congress acts. It needs approval from the House and the Senate to continue.

McConnell has been pilloried for weeks by former The Daily Show host Stewart, who accused McConnell of slow-walking the legislation and using it as a political pawn.

McConnell insisted the fund would be replenished, but Stewart used Stephen Colbert’s Late Show last week to urge McConnell to meet with 9/11 survivors and “don’t make them beg.”

McConnell met Tuesday for nearly 30 minutes with the group of responders, who said the meeting had been scheduled before Stewart’s remarks about McConnell went viral.

The meeting, Feal said, was a sharp contrast from previous McConnell meetings in 2010 and 2015 to discuss the fund. Those meetings, Feal said, were “contentious and heated and emotional” and McConnell was “quick to get up and leave his staff with us.”

This time, he said McConnell stuck around and asked questions. He said he wasn’t sure what changed McConnell’s mind, but noted “we’re pains in the asses. We don’t go away.”

He questioned whether it was Stewart’s intervention or the dramatic testimony at a recent House hearing, in which Alvarez, who is now in hospice, revealed that he was scheduled to undergo his 69th round of chemotherapy since being diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2016 that spread to his liver.

“I don’t think Mitch McConnell changed overnight,” Feal said. “The issue is bigger than Mitch McConnell, it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us. This is a generation-long battle and even if they pass the bill at 5 p.m. today, people are still going to get sick and die from the aftermath of 9/11.”

More than 40,000 people have applied to the fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to rescue work at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. More than $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.

Feal said the responders want a permanent fix for the fund, to avoid returning to Congress every few years and face opposition by lawmakers he described as “batshit, crazy people in the middle of the country who just don’t get it.”

He said the first responders would leave the details on how much money the fund will need to lawmakers.

McConnell is up for re-election in 2020 and a group that opposes him noted that the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that McConnell had said would be addressed before it expired was cut back in January.

“If Mitch McConnell ‘takes care of’ 9/11 first responders the same way he ‘took care of’ black lung victims, you can be pretty sure that our 9/11 heroes will continue to suffer,” the Ditch Mitch Fund said in a statement.