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Jon Stewart lashes out at Congress over 9/11 victims fund extension

The former talk show host was angered that only six lawmakers were at a subcommittee hearing to hear first responders' appeals.

From left, retired FDNY Lt. Michael O'Connell, a

From left, retired FDNY Lt. Michael O'Connell, a 9/11 responder; FealGood Foundation co-founder John Feal; retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez, a 9//11 responder; and former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart at a House hearing Tuesday on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Zach Gibson

WASHINGTON — Former talk show host Jon Stewart lashed out at Congress Tuesday as ailing first responders pleaded for a permanent extension of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, whose dwindling resources have led to award cuts of up to 70 percent.

Stewart, the onetime host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, spoke after first responders told stories of illness and death at a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting and gave a standing ovation for former NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez, who traveled to Washington to testify a day before his 69th chemotherapy treatment.

“You made me come,” Alvarez told the lawmakers, speaking slowly and in a slightly raspy voice. “I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick.”

Stewart then lit into the Congress as just six lawmakers — five Democrats and a Republican — remained for the hearing on legislation for fully funding the Victim Compensation Fund, which is fast running out of money and time. It's set to expire at the end of 2020.

“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to. Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress,” Stewart said.

“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country and a stain on this institution, and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said.

Stewart added, “Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time.”

Stewart’s scolding prompted a second standing ovation from the first responders, but prompted the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), to protest that his panel has only 13 members and that a full committee hearing would be better attended.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the top committee Republican and son of a first responder, said that he couldn’t “recall being so moved by testimony,” but said he wanted to see an estimate of what the full funding for a permanent program would cost.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said the Congressional Budget Office would make an estimate, but compared 9/11 to an act of war. “The CBO will give us a guess. But it won’t matter. We have to do it.”

Anesta Maria St. Rose Henry choked up and wept several times as she spoke of her husband Candidus Henry, a construction worker, who died last month at the age of 62. “He was the life of my family,” she said.

“The reason I have to worry is because Congress thinks it's OK for my husband’s life to be worth at least 70 percent less than what other construction workers” who died from working at Ground Zero as her husband did.

Rupa Bhattacharyya, special master of the Victim Compensation Fund, announced in February that because only about $2 billion of the $7.4 billion fund remained, she was forced to slash claims submitted on or before Feb. 1, 2019, by 50 percent and those filed after by 70 percent.

The full House appears likely to pass the legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), who is wearing a firefighter coat until the bill passes, and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). A House vote could occur within the next two or three weeks.

The legislation is co-sponsored by 306 House members — including 80 Republicans, Maloney said. Nadler said his panel will consider the bill and likely approve it and send it to the House on Wednesday.

But the bill faces a tougher path in the Senate, where it has only eight Republican co-sponsors and powerful senators, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), want to limit its cost and duration.

Stewart and John Feal, whose Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation has helped organize lobbying by first responders, expressed their frustration at the legislative tactics and political games played in the Senate with the last two Victim Compensation Fund’s approvals — for five years at a time.

“We made 13 trips in the last six months. We’ve had 300 plus meetings. And I've seen many of my own team get sick, and not be able to return back to the battlefield,” Feal said. “So we're not going to wait for reaction from the Senate. We're going to force them to react to us.”

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