How the Zadroga miracle happened


BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer

The U.S. Senate office buildings seemed empty. A few doors remained open, with junior staffers manning the phones next to brightly decorated Christmas trees, but many offices were closed. In front of some, were piles of cardboard boxes as their former occupants made way for the newly elected Congress.

Not knowing who would be there to hear them on December 21, a group of people from New York and New Jersey trudged through the halls, led by John Feal, a first responder who lost half his foot at the World Trade Center site. Seven years ago, Feal started trying to help first responders get the medical and financial assistance they needed as many of them fell ill and some of them died. Five years ago, he founded the FealGood Foundation to formalize and expand the effort on behalf of what, by then, was known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

This was his 89th trip to Capitol Hill. Others in the group had made dozens of trips — they had lost count of how many. They cheered when the $7.4 billion Zadroga bill passed the House in September, but now it was stalled in the Senate. A group of Republican senators said they opposed it on fiscal grounds, and three in particular — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Mike Enzi of Wyoming — had said they would do anything they could to stop it by running out the clock in the lame duck Senate.

At noon on December 21, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer of New York, accompanied by Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, held a press conference. As they had many times before, they declared their intention of getting the Zadroga bill passed. First responders told their stories; some of them cried. Union officials and members of the New York Police and Fire Departments talked about how many first responders had already died and how many were ill.

After the press conference, Feal suggested to his group that they were there to lobby, not to eat lunch, so lunch was foregone. The group went to see Tom Coburn. He wasn’t in. A staff member asked the group to wait in the hall. They waited for more than half an hour. No one would see them. Finally they left, singing “God Bless America,” so at least the people behind the closed doors would have to know they were there. Their voices and footsteps echoed in the hallways. They boarded a bus for a motel on the outskirts of town, where they were to have dinner and spend the night. That evening, as they ate in the motel’s Chinese restaurant, they saw news reports on the television set above the bar about the Zadroga bill and what had happened — or more precisely, failed to happen — that day.

The next morning, the group went back to the Capitol for more lobbying, stopping at Jeff Sessions’ office, where they pleaded with a young aide to take their message to the senator. It seemed doubtful that the message would be transmitted.

Then, not knowing exactly when the vote would occur, the group sat in Senator Gillibrand’s office to wait. Some went down to the cafeteria for lunch. Shortly before 2 p.m., they were told that the time had come.

They filed into the Senate visitors’ gallery. On the floor below them, Senator Schumer entered the room, where Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who, along with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Congressman Peter King had shepherded the Zadroga bill through the House, was already standing. Schumer shook Nadler’s hand. Moments later, Senator Gillibrand entered. She and Schumer conferred with Nadler, Maloney and King.

Gillibrand had an envelope full of red, white and blue ribbons. She pinned them on the lapels of her staff. When Vice President Joseph Biden arrived in the Senate chambers, she shook his hand. He kissed her on the cheek and she pinned a ribbon on him. At 2:20 p.m. Hillary Clinton arrived. She and Gillibrand embraced and Clinton put her arm around Nadler.

The debate in progress was about the START treaty with Russia to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms. Senator John Kerry had just given an eloquent speech in favor of the bill, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put the Zadroga 9/11 bill up for a vote. With Biden presiding, it passed by a unanimous voice vote, so quietly and so quickly that it was almost not clear what had happened. The group from New York and New Jersey filed out of the visitors’ gallery. It was only when they were downstairs at a press conference called to celebrate the vote that the cheers erupted.

The bill that had passed was not what the House had passed. It had been cut back to $4.3 billion and was good for five years, not for 10.

What happened during the night was only recounted later. “I was being updated all the way until 2:30 in the morning,” Feal said after the modified version of the bill had passed the Senate. “But even though I knew it was going to go, in the back of my mind I knew that something could go wrong because this is Washington, D.C., and as you know, Washington, D.C. breaks all the time, but they seem to regroup and put themselves back together and have a moment of clarity.”

Senator Schumer had another take on the night’s events. “We nearly gave up last night,” he said at the press conference after the Senate passed the bill. He said he was in his office and thought the bill “had all fallen apart. I sleep well, my family and friends and staff know that – I usually sleep through anything, but I had a bad night last night. And when we woke up this morning, and when Senator Gillibrand and I walked into Tom Coburn’s office expecting that they were just going to put barriers in our way, the first words he said was ‘We’re real close.’ And you could see by his body language and the tone of his voice that they really wanted to get this done. And it only took us about an hour, and so here we are. Those people who did rush to help us, who thought they were being abandoned, are now in the bosom of America, and this is a proud day for everyone who’s been involved in this effort and for everyone who bears the title ‘citizen of the USA.’”

Gillibrand called the passage of the bill “our Christmas miracle.”

Because the bill had been amended from the House version, it still had to go back to the House. Many members of the House had already gone home. “We’re going to have to move this out as quickly as possible before anyone has a chance to change their mind,” Congressman Anthony Weiner quipped to the first responders.

The group hurried to the House visitors’ gallery to see the vote. At 4:39 p.m. the numbers went over the top and cheers erupted both in the gallery and on the floor of the House. The final vote in the House was 260 for the Zadroga bill, with 60 against. One hundred sixty-eight members of the House had already left Washington and didn’t vote.

“I always knew the bill would pass,” Feal said. “I knew it would be ugly at the finish line. I’m not happy with the way the bill passed, but it’s passed, and that means that people are going to get help. And listen, men and women who haven’t been able to enjoy Christmas for the last eight years – this Christmas, while they might not be able to open a check on Friday morning from the government, they’ll at least have peace of mind knowing that there’s help coming in 2011.”

Feal said that he expects President Obama to sign the bill while the president is in Hawaii, but Feal added that he hopes to bring his group and others who worked so hard to get the bill passed back to Washington early in the new year – this time, to celebrate.