Congress finally did the right thing

If not for the impassioned pleas of comic Jon Stewart and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Congress most likely would have adjourned last week without passing special health benefits for stricken 9/11 emergency workers.

And such inactivity would have been an inexcusable affront to these 9/11 heroes who are enduring enormous personal hardships as the result of their bravery in the midst of a national crisis. In the nine years since terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers, Republican and Democrat politicians have spoken passionately of the heroic sacrifices of police, fire and medical personnel. Yet Congress didn't see fit to end a legislative deadlock until Stewart and Giuliani spotlighted the hypocrisy and callousness of a Republican-led filibuster of a bill that should have received quick, unanimous bipartisan support.

During the waning hours of Congress, Stewart devoted an entire show to 9/11 rescue workers recounting their health problems, while Giuliani bluntly criticized fellow Republicans for being on the wrong side of "morality." As the former mayor put it, "this should not be seen as a Democratic or Republican issue ... it shouldn't even be seen as a fiscal issue. It's a matter of morality, of obligation."

He's right. Too often we ask for sacrifice, and then fail to do all we can to help those who have sacrificed for the rest of us. The problems of 9/11 rescue workers are not unlike those faced by thousands of returning service members who suffer combat stress, divorce, homelessness, brain injuries and drug and alcohol abuse. All are heroes, and more should be done to help them in their times of need.

The congressional compromise provides $1.8 billion over the next five years to monitor and treat injuries stemming from exposure to toxic dust and debris at Ground Zero, and sets aside $2.5 billion to reopen the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund for five years to provide payment for job and economic losses. More than 1,000 rescue and recovery workers have died since 9/11 from illnesses contracted at Ground Zero, and about 60,000 people are in health-monitoring and treatment programs. Indeed, many of these people can't be fully compensated for life-altering, debilitating or even terminal illnesses. However, anything less than a national good-faith effort to aid recovery and ease pain is unconscionable.

This nation has a moral obligation to aid those whose sacrifices at home and overseas represent the best in the American character. Congress did the right thing, but it should have happened sooner and without the embarrassing political kicking and screaming.

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