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Congress' Sequester Raids 9/11 Treatment And Compensation Funds To Cut Deficit

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WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers vowed to "never forget" 9/11 again last week, but it appears many already had -- in the budget sequester legislation Congress passed last summer to try and cut the deficit.

The sequester set up automatic budget cuts of some $1.2 trillion over 10 years, and legislators were careful to spare veterans from most of those, recognizing their sacrifices in the war on terror. But apparently no one remembered to also exempt 9/11 responders and others who first answered the call after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that started that war.

And now the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that President Barack Obama signed on Jan. 2, 2011, faces $38-million worth of cuts in 2013 alone if the sequester is not avoided, and could lose something approaching $300 million over the current planned life of the program.

The news is not going over well with advocates in the 9/11 community, who had thought that the 9/11 programs were safe because they were passed as mandatory spending programs outside of the annual discretionary budget process.

"This is unacceptable," said John Feal, a construction worker who founded the FealGood Foundation advocacy group after losing half his foot at Ground Zero in the cleanup.

"This is just another slap in the face from Washington, D.C.," Feal said. "Last week, Republicans and Democrats talked about remembering 9/11 and unity all across the nation, and all that patriotic stuff, and now we're getting this thrown on our lap."

Feal found the news especially insulting because in order to get Republicans to sign on, sponsors of the Zadroga Act had to find a dedicated funding stream, and they did. The measure is paid for by leveling a 2 percent tax on foreign companies that get U.S. federal contracts when their home governments bar U.S. firms from government contracts there.

That revenue stream is not being reduced, meaning that money raised specifically to aid the ailing heroes and victims of 9/11 would instead be used to pay the government's bills. Adding insult to injury, the 9/11 law was already structured to cut the deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate, the measure slashes $433 million from the deficit.

The potential cuts would come as the likely demand for 9/11 services is expected to grow, now that federal officials have decided cancer should be covered in the programs.

"We just got cancer added, and we don't even know if we have enough money for cancer, and they want to take money away from us," Feal said.

Even the threat of the cuts has the potential to complicate matters. Sheila Birnbaum, the special master of the victims compensation fund -- which stands to lose $28 million -- was hoping to start the slow, painstaking process of cutting checks next month. While the White House has instructed agencies to essentially ignore the sequester, it's not clear that Birnbaum could start payments without knowing whether she has the full $322 million budgeted, or $298 million, for 2013.

In addition, of the $190 million earmarked for treating sick responders this year, the City of New York is required to pay 10 percent. It wasn't clear if the feds' projected $14 million cut included the city's share, or if another $1.4 million would be chopped on top.

New York's senators who managed to negotiate and push the Zadroga Act into law just before Christmas in 2010 slammed the possible sequester cuts.

"I thought this was an ill-conceived concept from the start which is one of the reasons why I voted against the [sequester]," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D). "Nothing exemplifies this unbalanced and draconian approach to deficit reduction more than asking our heroes who have already sacrificed so much to sacrifice yet again so that Republican leadership could appease their special interests. Our 9/11 heroes who answered the call of duty should be treated with the same dignity as our veterans. We need to come together and work towards a balanced approach that keeps struggling families from sacrificing the most."

Ironically, many GOP opponents in 2010 argued against passing the Zadroga Act because they thought 9/11 responders shouldn't get special consideration, and should be treated more like veterans.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) voted for the sequester deal that passed in August of 2011 as part of the Budget Control Act, allowing the nation to raise its borrowing limit and head off a historic national default. Schumer argued that the potential pain aimed at first responders is yet another reason to solve the problem.

"This is one of the most poignant examples of why we must work to avert the sequester," Schumer said. "Republicans need to finally join Democrats in supporting a balanced deficit reduction plan that includes revenues as well as sensible savings."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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