Healthcare Denied for 9/11 First Responders: Who Owns the GOP?

Senate Republicans are scrambling to come up with excuses for why they once again filibustered against the 9/11 First Responders health care bill: There were other issues more pressing. There’s no deadline – the bill can be looked at next year. We need to concentrate on the taxes and the budget. The bill is too expensive. The spending needs to be offset. I had to go home (Sam Brownback). I don’t remember whether I’m for the bill or against it (really, Orrin Hatch?).

Wait a minute. Was this a rush job? Did the Democrats slap a bill together at the last minute and try to ram it through without giving GOP legislators time to review it? And what was that about offsetting the spending? Are you telling me the Democrats waited until the last minute to push through 7.4 billion dollars in spending and they haven’t identified where the money will come from? Because if that’s the case, maybe the GOP is justified.

But of course it’s not true. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009 has been under consideration since – you guessed it – 2009. February 2009, to be specific. The Senate has had plenty of time to study the bill, plenty of time to make up their minds whether police and firefighters who spent months in the still-burning rubble of the World Trade Center deserve medical care and financial compensation that would save their lives, or make their last days more tolerable, or prevent their widows and children from being bankrupt by leftover medical bills.

And the spending offset is right there in the bill: the $7.4 billion would be covered by eliminating a loophole in the tax code that allows foreign corporations to use a tax break that was intended for U.S. companies only.

This isn’t the first time the bill has been blocked, and this isn’t the first list of excuses that the GOP has come up with. This is a bipartisan bill and for over a year it had widespread support within the Republican Party. Then in July of this year House Republican leaders suddenly began complaining that undocumented immigrants might be able to get medical care through the bill, or that the bill would create “a massive new entitlement program,” or result in “tax increases and potential job losses,” or that the bill was just a ploy by the City of New York, a “money grab” for federal funds.

But on September 29th, with midterms around the corner and no cohesive message to explain their duplicity, some House Republicans came back over to the bill and it was passed in the House with a filibuster-proof margin of 61%. This month it was the Senate’s turn, but the elections are over and Republicans were able to stand firm against terrorism – sorry, I mean against NYC Firefighters. The vote on December 9 was 57 to 42, a clear majority but not enough to get past a GOP filibuster. Republicans continued to block the bill through the end of this year’s session, and Sen. Harry Reid had to change his vote to Nay at the last minute, to keep the bill alive for another try in the new year.

Why are Republicans still fishing around for the best way to frame their opposition to this bill? Granted, it’s not easy to explain how the GOP could be against paying for the medical care of 9/11 heroes but if anyone can do it, the GOP message machine can. Surely they could come up with a few good talking points to turn the issue inside out and convince their loyal base of Fox News watchers and Rush Limbaugh listeners that the bill would actually kill American firemen and police officers instead of saving their lives, or would finance the building of a mosque on top of Ground Zero, or would create a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.

The problem for Republican legislators is that they have a dirty little secret: their opposition to this bill has been bought and paid for by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber (and we should all start calling it ‘the Chamber’ – it sounds so ominous) has lobbied against the bill because they don’t want the tax loophole for foreign corporations to be closed.

This is the same Chamber that lobbied against health care, financial reform, and climate legislation. The same Chamber that contributed huge sums to GOP candidates – and only GOP candidates – for the midterm elections. The same Chamber that has spent over $600 million in lobbying since 1998.

In September, with the House vote looming, the Chamber saw the tide turning against them and took the drastic measure of sending a letter to the House stating their objection to the bill and laying out their reasons:

“The provision included in H.R. 847 would raise taxes on foreign corporations that invest and create jobs domestically, would discourage foreign investment in the United States, override long-standing tax treaties, damage U.S. relationships with major trading partners, and could prompt retaliation by foreign governments against U.S. companies operating abroad.”

Thus the true reason for the GOP’s objections has been available – on the Chamber’s own website – for three months. Yet the GOP still hasn’t come up with a cohesive message to explain and excuse their actions. And why should they? Until the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart spent the entire half hour of his final show of the year on the subject, the media had completely ignored the subject. The average American hasn’t had any awareness that this bill began as a bipartisan bill and had widespread GOP support until Republican leadership suddenly directed their members to vote against it. The average American has no idea that the GOP has been blocking this bill because the Chamber doesn’t want it. And they have no idea that the Chamber bought an election for the GOP, in exchange for their souls.

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