NEW YORK — Sen. Rand Paul is balking at the $10 billion price tag for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
Meanwhile, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, while saying he backs the bill, wants debate on the issue in the Senate to ensure safeguards are in place to prevent corruption.
Paul, a Kentucky Republican, derailed a request on Wednesday by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to fast track the bill that would permanently fund compensation for sick and dying 9/11 responders and victims because the cost was too high.
“We’re adding debt at about a trillion dollars a year,” Paul said in stopping the request.
“Any new spending we are approaching, any new program that’s going to have the longevity of 70, 80 years should be offset by cutting spending that’s less valuable,” he said. “We need to at very least to have this debate.”
The $10.2 billion measure passed the House last week with an overwhelming vote of 402 to 12. It did not have any provisions to off-set the cost — a fact that some lawmakers there noted, although it was not reason enough for them to oppose the bill.
“Sen. Lee fully expects the 9/11 compensation bill to pass before the August recess, and he is seeking a vote to ensure the fund has the proper oversight in place to prevent fraud and abuse," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said Wednesday afternoon.
The Victim Compensation Fund has been overseen by the Justice Department since 2010. It is running out of money well before its current expiration date of 2020 and the fund master has cut compensation payments by up to 70%. Hundreds of slashed awards have already gone out to widows and ailing survivors.
Gillibrand’s request would have sent the bill directly to the president, ending nearly 18 years of uncertainty for people who rushed to the devastation of Ground Zero or lived and worked among the dust and smoke.
“I am deeply disappointed,” said Gillibrand, pointing the vote in the House and the 74 senators who back the bill.
“Enough of the political games,” she said. “Our 9/11 first responders and the entire nation are watching to see if this body actually cares. Do we care about the men and women who answered the call of duty when our country was attacked?”
Paul and Lee’s objection are unlikely to kill the bill. Numerous responders and advocates who have been pushing for the legislation told the New York Daily News that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the senior senator from Kentucky — is solidly behind the bill.
“It’s my understanding that Sen. McConnell and his staff are working hard to get the House-passed bill onto the floor as quickly as he can,” said Ben Chevat, who runs the group Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act.
The measure was originally named for Zadroga after the New York Police Department detective died in 2006 from the dust and toxins that destroyed his lungs. The names of late Firefighter Ray Pfeifer and late Detective Luis Alvarez have also been added to the bill. Both were advocates before they died of 9/11-linked cancer, and Alvarez galvanized momentum behind the new bill when he testified in June about the illness that left him visibly ravaged and exhausted. The responders gave McConnell Alvarez’s badge.
McConnell had not been an avid supporter before, but after responders presented him with their tragic gift, as Alvarez lay dying, he got behind the bill.
Lee did not join Paul in blocking it Wednesday, but word leaking out that he had reservations infuriated responders.
John Feal, head of the FealGood Foundation 9/11 advocacy group, hammered Lee on Facebook Wednesday morning. Responders had met with Lee's staff, and emerged from the meeting saying that Lee's top counsel, Phil Alito, promised that Lee would not stand in the way. He trained his fire on the Kentuckian Wednesday.
“Rand Paul is as unpatriotic as Mike Lee. More importantly Sen. Paul is a doctor who took an oath just as he did as a senator,” Feal said. “And he failed miserably at both.”
One responder who met Lee earlier this month to get a “Freedom Award” from a conservative group in Utah was willing to grant him a little leeway. Tommy Asher — one of the rescuers featured in a film about the last two survivors of the twin towers' collapse — told the Daily News that Lee pledged “1,000%” support for responders.
“All I know is I’m OK with anybody’s support. If he decides that he’s looking into it a little deeper, that’s his prerogative,” Asher said.
But he still expects a yes vote, and soon.
“If he says 'Nay,' that’s on his conscience, not mine. He’s promised me that we have his full backing,” Asher said.