Current funding in the federal Highway Trust Fund expires tomorrow, so it was reassuring to see lawmakers reach an agreement earlier this week on a $305 billion package to fund infrastructure projects over the next five years. But as it turns out, what’s missing from the bill is, for many, every bit as important as what’s in it.
The new highway bill, expected to pass ahead of tomorrow night’s deadline, is already a bit of a mess. Because Republicans refuse to consider raising the gas tax that pays for so much of the nation’s transportation projects, Congress is financing this bill through some one-time measures, including selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and taking funds from a Federal Reserve surplus account. It’s a bizarre approach to making necessary public investments.
But for many lawmakers, who are surprised when anything meaningful gets done in Congress, the fact that a highway bill came together at all is a minor miracle, and it’s expected to pass fairly easily.
There is, however, one important wrinkle. The New York Daily News reported yesterday:
Reauthorization for the Zadroga Act is being left out of a must-pass piece of legislation, advocates for the program tell the Daily News, leaving supporters howling that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking crucial funding for 9/11 survivors.Zadroga Act backers were hoping to get it permanently reauthorized in the bipartisan Highway Bill, a piece of legislation that’s expected to be released Tuesday evening. But funding for the program for 9/11 first responders and other victims of the terror attacks’ aftermath, which officially expired last fall and will run out of money early next year, was left out during negotiations between the House and Senate in spite of expectations that it would be added.
As omissions go, this is a big one.
For those unfamiliar with the fight, let’s recap. In 2010, there was a surprisingly bitter fight over a bill called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The point of the measure was to provide “medical coverage and financial assistance to members of the civilian army who rallied to serve their country and city in the dark days after” 9/11. Many of these first responders and civilians breathed the toxic air at Ground Zero, “and suffered severe illnesses, including cancers, because of their service.”
Congressional Republicans tried to derail the bill, and they nearly succeeded, before the then-Democratic majority managed to overcome GOP opposition, pass the Zadroga 9/11 bill, and send it to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
Five years later, the law needs to be reauthorized, and Democrats believed the Zadroga bill would be included in the must-pass highway bill, resolving both issues at once. NBC News reported, however, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stripped the Zadroga provisions from the larger package.
[A]ides familiar with the negotiations say that Sen. McConnell asked that the highway bill also lift the U.S. ban on oil exports, and when that was not agreed to he stopped the Zadroga Act from being included in the five-year highway legislation.“I believe that Senator McConnell was using this as a negotiating position – give us something, we’ll give you help for the 9/11 rescue workers,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters on Tuesday, “And in the end he was the one, Senator (Charles) Schumer and (Kirsten) Gillibrand ticked off every box of every potential opponent, Democrat, Republican, House and Senate, and it all came down to one box at the bottom: Mitch McConnell. He stopped it.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) added the Zadroga bill has been “done” for a while. “It was supposed to be in the highway bill, quite frankly I was surprised yesterday when I was told by Senator McConnell that it wasn’t going to be in the highway bill, I was really quite surprised,” the Democratic leader added.
For its part, McConnell’s office insists the Zadroga measure isn’t yet done, and “questions of duration and pay-fors are still being worked out.”
In other words, the policy isn’t necessarily dead, so proponents still have reason to hope.
That said, the expectation was that the issue would be resolved this week, and as of now, it appears that will not happen.
Postscript: It’s worth noting for context that McConnell opposed the Zadroga bill when it came up in 2010. Of the senators (and former senators) running for president, Bernie Sanders voted for the measure, Lindsey Graham voted against it, and Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul had not yet taken office.