CBSN

A "Christmas Miracle": Congress Passes Sept. 11 Health Care Bill

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., gives thumbs up to supporters as she heads to the floor as they consider the 9/11 First Responders bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., gives thumbs up to supporters as she heads to the floor as they consider the 9/11 First Responders bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Updated 5:53 p.m. Eastern Time

In what is likely its last act before a new Congress takes over in January, Congress on Wednesday approved a $4.2 billion bill to provide health care and compensation for first responders and survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The bill was worked out in negotiations between Republicans and Democrats Wednesday morning, passed through the Senate in the early afternoon, and then passed the House in the late afternoon. It will now head to the president's desk for signature.

The House vote was 206-60. President Obama has vowed to sign the bill.

"Our Christmas miracle has arrived," New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, flanked by Senate Majority Harry Reid and New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer.

"Today is an amazing day," added Schumer, who sponsored the bill with Gillibrand. "It's a great day, of course, for those who are ill. Now at least they know they'll be taken care of. It's a great day for New York and New Jersey, because we were the ones hit. And America rose to the occasion. But most of all, beyond any of the amazing individual stories that brings tears to our eyes, this is a great day for America."

Money from the bill will go for health care as well as wage and other economic losses for sickened workers and survivors of the attack, as well as local residents.

The bill, entitled the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, originally called for a ten-year, $7.4 billion compensation package for Americans who became ill as a result of their work on the scene of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

But Republican opposition stalled the bill in the Senate, and it wasn't until last-minute negotiations with Republicans Mike Enzi and Tom Coburn - the Oklahoma Republican who threatened to use procedural tactics to block the bill- that a compromise was worked out that allowed for passage.

"I'm pleased the sponsors of this bill agreed to lower costs dramatically, offset the bill, sunset key provisions and take steps to prevent fraud," Coburn said in a statement. "Every American recognizes the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generations of opportunity. I'm pleased this agreement strikes a fair balance and improves the bill the majority attempted to rush through at the last minute."

The revised version of the bill cuts the package to five years of coverage at roughly $4.2 billion, reopens a victims' compensation fund, and increases accountability and oversight in the administration of benefits. It also caps lawyers fees at ten percent and bars responders from "double-dipping" on compensation benefits from the recent 9/11 health settlement.

"Some of the changes are going to be very good for the program," Gillibrand said in the press conference. "I think that it's a better bill and a bill that's strong."

 Reid, speaking at the news conference, said that while he didn't feel the bill had everything Democrats wanted, "legislation is the art of compromise."

"This is $4.3 billion better than nothing," Reid said. "This is a great victory."

Schumer said that the compromise was reached after his side approached Enzi and Coburn about brokering a last-minute deal.

"We knew that the clock was running out," he said. "There was a simple strategy by those who wanted to stop this bill, which was let the clock run out. We made it clear that we were going to stay and stay and stay and stay."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who voiced strong support for the legislation in recent weeks, praised the Senate's action on the bill.

"Today's bipartisan approval of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act by the United States Senate affirms our nation's commitment to protecting those who protect us all," Bloomberg said.


Lucy Madison
Lucy Madison is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.