How Republicans Ended Up Against 9/11 Responders Bill

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With just hours left in the 111th Congress, Republican lawmakers find themselves the target of ire and scorn from the most unlikely of adversaries: the firefighters and police officers who rushed into the burning towers on September 11 nearly a decade ago and worked at the site for months afterward.

Update:  Republican senators back down late Wednesday (Raymond Hernandez, NYT):

[L]awmakers relented after facing a barrage of criticism — not just from Democrats, but also from traditional Republican allies, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, and conservative news outlets like Fox News. Later in the day, the House swiftly approved the measure and sent to President Obama for his signature.

By Michael D. Shear in the NYT

That predicament crystallized Tuesday when Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor during the 9/11 attacks, condemned Republicans as being on the wrong side of “morality” and “obligation” for failing to support legislation to provide medical benefits for the first responders.

“This should not be seen as a Democratic or Republican issue,” Mr. Giuliani, a Republican who ran for president in 2008, said on a Fox News affiliate. “It shouldn’t even be seen as a fiscal issue. It’s a matter of morality, of obligation.”

Democratic sponsors of the legislation say they believe they have the 60 votes necessary to overcome Republican opposition. A vote could come soon after final action on the New Start nuclear treaty Wednesday morning.

But the remarks by Mr. Giuliani capped several days of withering criticism from all corners of the political spectrum as it appeared that congress could depart for the year without voting on the first responders bill thanks to Republican efforts to block it.

Headlines in normally conservative news outlets blasted Republicans. Newsmaxx.com wrote that: “Giuliani Raps Fellow Republicans for Holding Up 9/11 Heroes Money‎.” Fox News host Shepard Smith drew attention to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has said he will try to block the legislation.

“He is the man who is vowing to slow this down or block it, so the necessary funding for the illnesses of the first responders who made it to Ground Zero to try to save lives on the day that America changed — remember?,” Mr. Smith said during his broadcast Tuesday. “This is the senator who is vowing to block it. So that it doesn’t make it through.”

Wednesday morning, the former Republican congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called the Republican opposition to the bill “a terrible mistake” for the party.

“It’s a terrible terrible mistake to be seen as opposing relief for 9/11 heroes,” he said. “This is one of those times when you get so wrapped up in the game that you forget to look and see what’s happening. Here, the Republicans, whether they know it or not, look horrible.”

How did the Republicans find themselves on this side of an historic and searing event that has been so politically potent for their party for so many years?

Early Republican opposition cast the legislation as a special-interest giveaway that would add to the nation’s debt and would create a kind of precedent for other groups seeking compensation. The first attempt to pass the bill in the House failed in July.

“This legislation as written creates a huge $8.4 billion slush fund paid by taxpayers that is open to abuse, fraud and waste,” said Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas at the time.

But supporters of the legislation – and in particular, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the bill’s chief backers – persisted by reducing the size of the legislation. They capped the free health coverage for first responders to a period of 10 years. And they added fees to pay for the $6.2 billion cost of the bill.

The legislation took a backseat during the lame-duck session as lawmakers struggled with issues of taxes, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and budget bills. Democratic efforts to bring it up for a vote in the Senate failed by three votes two weeks ago.

But as those issues have been dealt with, the focus on the rescue worker legislation has returned. Some of New York’s first responders, including firefighters whose health was compromised in the aftermath of the attacks, descended on Capitol Hill in the past week.

The renewed attention has returned the spotlight to the Republican opposition. And Democrats are happy to oblige. Senate Democrats produced an internet video this week with images of Republicans standing shoulder to shoulder with firefighters and police officers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“Whatever happened to supporting our nation’s heroes?” the video asks before dissolving into a scene of former President George Bush at ground zero in New York City.

“The nation, the nation sends its love and compassion,” Mr. Bush says into a megaphone, his arms around a firefighter. The video shows Republican lawmakers paying tribute to the first responders in years past, including Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who says: “I want to pay special tribute to those people who were so heroic to give their own lives to protect the lives of so many others.”

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