WASHINGTON -- Two of House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) newly empowered committee chairmen took immediate advantage Thursday of the freshly elected leader's pledge to give power back to committees -- and may have handed him a 9/11-related publicity disaster.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, both announced measures to temporarily extend the expiring 9/11 health and compensation programs.
In the process, they appear to have ignored permanent 9/11 legislation that was already proposed and sponsored by a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a majority of more than 240 members in the House.
That bill is universally backed by 9/11 responders and advocates, and they were furious the two chairmen decided to ignore a measure that already has enough support to pass. They wanted to make sure Ryan heard that they were not pleased with the first major legislation to be rolled out on the new speaker's watch.
"On a day when Republicans voted for a new speaker of the House, and promised they are turning over a new leaf, the House Judiciary Congressman Bob Goodlatte recklessly and without regard for the actual needs of 9/11 responders introduced his own version of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act," said John Feal, the head of the FealGood Foundation advocacy group.
He left out Upton, because Upton's bill dealing with health treatment was still in draft form. Goodlatte's bill would provide compensation at a similar level to the current Zadroga act, which is estimated to meet less than half of the need identified by an independent evaluator.
"This bizarre act of unilateral action was ironically done the same day the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act crossed the 60-vote threshold to make the bill filibuster proof," Feal said, noting that the existing, permanent bill would pass easily. "Even more bizarre, Chairman Goodlatte didn’t consult with the House bill sponsors."
"It's an insult, is what it is," said Karrie Boswell, a Virginia firefighters' union member with 27 years of service in Fairfax, Virginia, who thought Ryan might have to intervene.
"It might be the very first test of his leadership, to see how he handles it," Boswell told The Huffington Post.
Ryan declared Thursday that he wanted the House to return to so-called regular order, where committees work on legislation before it goes to the House floor. If Goodlatte and Upton take up their only measures, the popular one backed by 9/11 advocates will never reach the floor.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said Friday if Ryan disregards the decision reached by House and Senate lawmakers, it would "show a grave lack of judgment to unwind the will of such a vast majority."
"I hope the current speaker can analyze the issue on the facts and the merit and not make such a grave mistake in his first few weeks."
A spokesman for Ryan did not immediately answer a request for comment.
Representatives for Goodlatte declined to speak on the record, but a committee staffer said the idea behind writing a new bill was to balance the needs of the victims with the money Congress could raise to fund the compensation program. And since the current program sunsets in 2016 after five years on the books, Goodlatte thought a similar five-year period would be better than a permanent extension, giving Congress a chance to re-evaluate in the future.
Goodlatte also wanted to use the bill to raise compensation for victims of Iranian terrorism, and other acts of terror that have been adjudicated in the courts, the aide said, adding that such amendments would not have been possible on the existing 9/11 bill.
Gillibrand, however, countered that she would have been happy to work with the House chairmen but they never spoke to her. She said she was particularly peeved because she spoke to Upton just a couple of days ago and asked if he supported her permanent bill.
"I’m extremely disappointed that without calling me, without discussing with me, he then introduced a five-year bill," she said. "It feels to me like it was drafted by junior staff who don’t know anything."
Advocates for first responders did not raise objections to helping other victims of terrorism, but weren't sure why that couldn't be done in a separate bill.
And they were especially upset that both Goodlatte's measure and Upton's only last five years.
“As a responder, that is like saying 'I see you have a fire on the 10th floor, but I am only going to the fifth floor,'" said Richard Alles, Deputy Chief of the FDNY and a board member of Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act. "Anyone else but Congress would fix the problem, not leave it hanging. Cancer does not last five years. This is basically saying we have to drag you all back here again and again to get the help we need.”
When the original Zadroga Act passed, it was limited to five years, in part to show that it would not be subject to fraud and abuse. Since it has not been, responders say it's time for Congress to stop making them come hat in hand to lawmakers, and let them just worry about surviving.
Boswell recalled how she joined a group of responders earlier this month who came to Washington to lobby their cause, after having already done so the month before when Jon Stewart visited Congress.
It was obvious to her why lawmakers should stop requiring responders to trek to D.C. with their wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. And one firefighter offered an especially poignant example.
"He was standing down in the Metro tunnel, and he explained to me that he hadn't been down in the subway in a long time," Boswell said. "And as the subway train came rumbling into the station, in advance there was a loud rumble and a big rush of air. He said it took him right back, because he was in the second tower [of the World Trade Center] as it collapsed."
Some 4,000 responders have been diagnosed with 9/11-related cancer, and about 33,000 people are currently getting treatment in the medical program. It expired last month, but has enough cash to keep operating into next year. There are 470 Virginians in the medical program, and 85 who are eligible for compensation. In Michigan, Upton's state, there are about 80 9/11 responders, including 16 who are eligible for compensation.
"I'm just sitting here wondering how people continue to function if they have to deal with this stuff randomly in their life," said Boswell, who has been directing other responders to the Facebook pages of Goodlatte and other Virginia lawmakers. "It's absolutely time to lift this burden off their backs. They should not have to come back down here and fight again in five years."
Alles' group also maintains a site that lets people track and contact lawmakers who support and oppose the permanent Zadroga bill.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
Also on HuffPost: