US Congress passes health bill for Ground Zero workers

Ground Zero in New York a month after 11 September, 2001 attack The World Trade Center site continued to spew smoke weeks after the 9/11 attacks

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The US Congress has passed a bill to fund healthcare for workers involved in rescue and clean-up efforts after the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

The bill, passed first by the Senate and then the House, will also compensate survivors of the attacks.

Republicans who had initially opposed the bill's cost agreed to a smaller deal amid pressure from television personalities and New York Democrats.

The bill was one of the last remaining items before Congress adjourned.

The House passed the bill by 206 votes to 60, some two hours after it was cleared by the Senate. President Barack Obama has said he is eager to sign it into law.

US Congressman Peter King said the bill was a victory for both the American people and the US Congress.

"It sends a signal that we stand by those who come to the nation's defence in a time of trouble and indeed a time of war because this was the first battle of the great war of the 21 Century," he said.

'A national duty'

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the bill's unanimous passage in the Senate "affirms our nation's commitment to protecting those who protect us all".

"The events of that day were an attack on America by a foreign enemy, and addressing its health impacts is a national duty," he said.

After a high-profile campaign by television personalities - including Comedy Central presenter Jon Stewart and Fox News presenter Shepard Smith - as well as former Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the bill won the backing of Republicans who had opposed on cost grounds.

To win passage, Democratic negotiators led by New York Senators Kirsten Gilibrand and Charles Schumer agreed to lower to $4.2bn (£2.7bn) healthcare aid to Ground Zero workers, from the initial $6.2bn, and other concessions.

"Every American recognises the heroism of the 9/11 first responders, but it is not compassionate to help one group while robbing future generation of opportunity," said Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who had led Republican opposition.

"This agreement strikes a fair balance."

The legislation agreed on Wednesday also keeps a compensation fund open for victims of the attacks for another five years to cover economic losses of ill workers, and provides about $4bn (£2.6bn) for monitoring and treating illnesses caused by 9/11.

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