GOP plays political games with lives of Sept. 11 responders

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You may have seen how angry I was on the U.S. House of Representatives floor last month, but the story behind that 110-second video clip is one of years of delay and some outrageous tactics by my Republican colleagues who have denied heroic Americans important relief.

This should make you angry, too.

Thousands of people came to Ground Zero after the attacks. They were not called. They volunteered to come without extra compensation. They were not complaining. They were doing what Americans at their best do: helping in a crisis.

But they were also putting their lives at risk. Despite assurances from their government that the air was safe to breathe, we now know they were inhaling dangerous smoke and debris. Nine years later, 900 of these first responders have perished from Sept. 11-related diseases, with many more heroes across the country dying every year.

On July 29, we had a chance to take an important step forward by finally bringing a bill to the floor of Congress that would have provided treatment, screening and compensation to the thousands of Americans who sacrificed their health and safety both on 9/11 and during the cleanup that followed. In what should have been a legislative slam dunk, the bill was defeated on a simple up-or-down vote with only 12 Republicans voting in favor.

Just 21 additional Republican votes would have been enough to secure the bill’s passage.

It was frustrating enough to hear some Republicans say they did not believe these people deserved any help. For example, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, “People are injured, people are killed all the time. We do not have compensation funds for them. We have normal procedures, normal processes through which people receive assistance.”

But what really made me upset were the comments of my colleague, Rep. Pete King (R-Massapequa Park) — one of the sponsors of the bill — who failed to use his time during debate to urge his colleagues to put down their partisan swords for a moment and vote for the bill.

Instead, he did the opposite. He barely mentioned the bill and instead attacked Democrats for bringing the bill up on the part of the day’s calendar devoted to non-controversial bills.

You heard right. Democrats were attacked not because of the merits of the bill, but because of what part of the calendar it came up on. The goal was to make the issue of 9/11 health just another partisan issue.

Obviously, this made me angry.

It made me angry to see my colleague provide cover so other Republicans could vote no for phony reasons. It made me angry that he spent his energy defending Republicans who voted against the measure instead of pleading with them to vote yes.

It made me angry because, at some point, we have to draw a line in politics and say that doing what is right matters. If that is not protecting the people who risked their health to help on 9/11, then what is?

The appalling reality is that this has become the Republican way of doing business. On every important issue, they bob, duck and weave — complaining incessantly about an unfair process when in fact their abiding objective is to stop anything from passing.

Just last week they submitted a list of objections to the already-scaled back small-business tax credit legislation that has been bottled up in the U.S. Senate. After the Democrats agreed to make changes to the bill, the GOP leadership said it would still filibuster it.

Instead of a real debate about how to address the challenges we face, obstruction has become a partisan Republican tactic that they apply no matter the issue.

And while Republicans claim they want an open process full of consultation, debate and amendments, the truth is these complaints are just a subterfuge to disguise the fact that Republicans do not want to pass bills in the interest of scoring political points.

Sure, I was angry that day. I am still angry.

Maybe if my colleagues in Washington, D.C., saw issues like health care for 9/11 responders as more than just a game, we would all be better off. I know more than a few first responders who have so much toxic stew in their lungs that they cannot yell even if they wanted to. I am sure they and their families would give us all an earful.

But they should start with the 93 percent of Republicans in Congress who voted no on a down-payment on the debt we owe the victims of the attacks on our nation.

So when I heard a fellow New Yorker get up and defend Republicans who would deny first responders care on the grounds of process, it is not surprising I got angry.

Anthony Weiner

U.S. Representative

Forest Hills

Updated 6:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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