NEW YORK (AP)—It was called a "Christmas miracle," but a last-minute compromise by Congress will provide a smaller aid package than originally envisioned to help victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the responders sickened as they worked in its smoldering ruins.
The measure passed by Congress and sent to President Barack Obama on Wednesday would provide up to $4.2 billion in new aid to survivors and responders, $2 billion less than originally proposed. Obama said he is eager to sign it.
The package provides $1.5 billion to monitor the health of rescue and cleanup workers and treat illnesses related to ground zero. It also reopens a victims' compensation fund with $2.7 billion.
The bill was one of several major pieces of legislation passed in the waning hours of the lame-duck Congress. It would likely have faced much longer odds next year in the new, fiscally conservative Congress, where Republicans will hold greater sway.
Despite the scaling back of the package, a lawyer for Sept. 11 responders, Andrew Carboy, said his clients were "ecstatic."
"This is the recognition, compensation and health care they so richly deserved," he said.
Potential beneficiaries include retired New York police Detective Barbara Burnette, who was diagnosed with severe fibrosis of the lungs.
"That was a great Christmas present, and it's going to be a happy new year for many of us that are really suffering and really need it," she said.
The bill was years in the making but believed all but dead just days ago, when Republican senators blocked it from coming to a vote. But the measure cleared a key hurdle when Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of New York, reached a compromise with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, reducing the bill's scope and cost.
It won unanimous consent in the Senate after the agreement was announced, and the House approved it hours later.
"The Christmas miracle we've been looking for has arrived," Schumer and Gillibrand said in a joint statement.
The bill provides money for monitoring and treating illnesses related to ground zero and reopens a victims' compensation fund for another five years to cover wage and other economic losses of sickened workers and nearby residents. Schumer and Gillibrand had sought $6.2 billion and keeping the compensation fund open for 10 years.
Coburn and other Republicans ultimately bowed to pressure after facing criticism from GOP leaders including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city after the 2001 terror attacks and called the legislation "a matter of morality, of obligation." Democrats also produced a video showing former Republican President George W. Bush and other GOP lawmakers praising the heroism of first responders in the days after the attacks.
Dozens of firefighters and other supporters traveled from New York to Washington, lobbying to keep the legislation alive. Several visited Coburn's office Wednesday, urging him to drop his opposition.
One of those was John Feal, a 43-year-old former demolition supervisor from Long Island who lost a foot and suffered lung damage. He founded the Fealgood Foundation to provide assistance to people sickened after the attacks and has become a leading advocate for the measure.
Feal called the compromise bill "a seven on a scale of 10" but declared it a victory nonetheless.
"The men and women who risked their lives without prejudice that day went the last nine Christmases without knowing if the government would help them," Feal said. "It's a better Christmas gift than anything they could have asked for."
But Marvin Bethea, a former paramedic who suffered permanent lung damage after helping with the cleanup and hasn't worked since 2004, said he considered the compromise an insult to those who risked their lives at ground zero.
"If it ever happens again, why would anyone do what we did? To be forced to beg for help for nine years?" said Bethea, a 51-year-old Long Island resident. "I'm proud of the fact that I played a role that day, but I'm embarrassed by the way we've been treated."