SALT LAKE CITY — Comedian and activist Jon Stewart slammed two conservative senators, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for holding up legislation to reauthorize a fund that compensates 9/11 victims.
Stewart, former host of "The Daily Show," told Fox News that it's "absolutely outrageous" that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked a vote Wednesday on the bill that would continue funding to help cover medical costs and economic losses as a result of the terrorist attacks.
It only takes one objection under Senate rules to stop a request for unanimous consent to advance a bill. Paul balked at the cost, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates at $10.2 billion over the next decade for outstanding claims and future claims.
Lee, R-Utah, also earlier put a procedural hold on the legislation. But by Thursday afternoon, under pressure from 9/11 first responders and advocates, the senator said he had reached a deal to vote on the funding next week.
Stewart, a passionate advocate for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund who testified on Capitol Hill earlier this year, said Lee and Paul "lack humanity."
"The people from the state of Kentucky and the people from the state of Utah deserve better," he said.
Paul fired back Thursday afternoon on Fox News Channel's "Your World with Neil Cavuto," saying Stewart is sometimes funny and sometimes informed.
"But, in this case, he's neither funny, nor informed," he said. "And his name-calling just sort of exposes him as a left-winger, part of the left-wing mob that really isn't using his brain and is willing to call people names."
A 9/11 first responder, John Feal, said he met with Lee's staff a few months ago.
"They promised, they swore up and down that they were not going to get in the way of this," Feal told Fox News. "Mike Lee, you're a liar."
Lee issued a statement Thursday morning trying to explain the work he is doing on the bill.
“Last night Jon Stewart said he believed a billion dollars a year for 10 years was a reasonable request for 9/11 first responders. I agree," he said.
Lee said he filed an amendment to the bill Wednesday night to fund the program at $10.2 billion as the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would need.
“I do not want to stop the bill’s consideration and believe we can and should address the health needs of those first responders of the 9/11 attack,” he said.
The $10.2 billion measure overwhelmingly passed the House last week, 402 to 12.
Later Thursday, Lee put out another statement saying he had secured unanimous consent of the Senate to vote on two amendments and final passage of the bill next week.
"We could in fact accomplish all of this today, before we adjourn for the weekend. This is in fact what I would prefer. I think finishing our work on this bill to protect victims and first responders is worth a half hour of our time,” he said on the Senate floor.
But other senators, he said, did not want to vote Thursday, so he agreed to schedule the vote for next week.
Lee said he wants Congress to have some continued oversight to ensure the fund follows the law as intended. He said the program has been free of waste and abuse because the funding was capped.
Lee said the current legislation would not authorize the fund for another five years like the previous bills, but extend the program to 2092 with no funding cap.
"We have seen too many times government programs divert from their intended use when Congress abdicates its oversight role," he said.
Stewart said he met with Lee about the reauthorization five years ago.
"He is the reason that we’ve had to go back again for this new one and now, he wants to put another cap on it that's going to make John Feal and all these other tenacious yet ill first responders drag themselves back to Washington to put their hats in their hands and beg for something that this country should have done 14 years ago," he said.
In his later statement, Lee said 9/11 responders are among the "great heroes of American history."
Lee said the initial fund was available for roughly two years after the 9/11 attacks for people who were there at the time or in the immediate aftermath of the three sites or for passengers and crew of any aircraft that crashed.
Just over 5,500 people received a total of just over $7 billion.
The fund was reopened in 2011 and extended eligibility for benefits to people who suffered physical injuries or illnesses as a result of rescue, recovery or debris removal work at or near the crash sites as well as those who lived, worked or were near the World Trade Center on that day of the attacks, he said.
Congress reauthorized the fund in 2015.
The total funding available from 2011 through 2020 is $7.4 billion, Lee said. At this point the fund has made roughly $5.2 billion in claims but has had to start trimming awards since February to ensure that valid claimants receive at least a portion of the benefits due to them, he said.
Correction: An earlier version said Jon Stewart called Sen. Mike Lee a liar in a Fox News interview. It was 9/11 first responder John Feal who called Lee a liar in the interview.