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Reformed 9/11 compensation bill passes House, to become law

The House of Representatives stayed in session long enough Wednesday to approve the Senate-amended version of H.R. 847, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, by "a vote of 206-60, with 168 members not voting. At National Review Online's The Corner, Duncan Currie pays tribute to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), whose persistence and refusal to be cowed produced a bill that reins in the worst excesses of the original legislation. From "Tom Coburn's Achievement":

The idea of boosting medical and financial aid to heroic Ground Zero workers was never controversial. But the proposed legislation needed serious fixes. Indeed, various aspects of the 9/11 bill -- the cost, the duration, the lack of adequate oversight mechanisms, the loopholes for trial lawyers -- were deeply problematic. Unfortunately, Republicans who suggested as much were pilloried for their "callousness" and "cowardice."

Well, guess what? On Wednesday afternoon a compromise version of the 9/11 bill passed by unanimous consent. Had Coburn simply folded? Quite the opposite. He had succeeded in obtaining major revisions that greatly improved the final product.

Originally, the ten-year cost of the legislation would have been either $7.4 billion (House-passed version) or $6.2 billion (amended Senate version). The ten-year cost of the compromise will be only $4.2 billion. Originally, the bill would have cost billions more beyond the ten-year window. Those added costs were jettisoned entirely from the compromise. Originally, the re-opened 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) -- which closed in 2003 -- would have stayed in operation through 2031. Now the VCF will be shuttered -- permanently -- in 2016. Originally, legislative loopholes would have permitted certain attorneys to gobble up a massive chunk of 9/11-related settlements. The compromise imposes a rigid ceiling on trial-lawyer fees, limiting them to 10 percent of the total amount awarded and giving the VCF "special master" authority to slash fees that he considers disproportionate. Originally, the bill suffered from a dearth of accountability controls. The compromise includes muscular safeguards against waste and abuse.

Sen. Coburn issued a news release detailing the agreement. (UPDATE, Dec. 26 -- Before the compromise, Sen. Coburn's office released a seven-page critique of the legislation.)

As we commented below, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), also demanded fixes to the legislation, which made him the target of organized attacks. (Casper Star Tribune, "Media continues to target Enzi on 9/11 bill.")

The text of the final bill is here.

"Final" in this case is subject to revision. According to The New York Observer's report on a news conference, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wants another shot at the legislation.

[She] said that once the program was in place, backers could go back to the Senate and try to get it extended.

"We can go back to the drawing board in four years and fight for the next five years, but it was far more important to set up the program and deliver the care now," she said. "Once the program is created we can prove how effective and efficient it is at delivering the care, and so that will give us the momentum and the argument to push for further funding later. Ultimately we want to cover these people forever."

UPDATE (11:20 a.m. Sunday): In an interview on NPR's Sunday Edition, "Sept. 11 Responder Bill A Good Start," 9/11 responder and bill supporter, Glen Klein affirmed plans to extend the bill after five years.

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The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.