The House passed legislation Friday that would give as much as $3 billion in payments to thousands of spouses and children of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks who were left out of previous compensation rounds.
The bill passed overwhelmingly, 400-31, in the last vote before lawmakers headed for the exits to go home and campaign before the midterm elections. It now has to win Senate approval, though that chamber has no more votes until Nov. 14.
All but one Democrat — Oregon’s Kurt Schrader, a centrist budget hawk who’s leaving the House after losing his primary in May — voted for the bill. Most Republicans backed it as well, with just 30 defections on the GOP side.
The measure’s sponsors said it would correct an injustice in the award of payments from a fund that initially had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, created in 2015, was initially designed to compensate U.S. hostages held by Iran for more than a year after the 1979 revolution, and others subjected to terrorism by foreign governments. An earlier, separate fund was created specifically to compensate 9/11 victims and family members.
But beginning in 2019, some 9/11 families began receiving payments from the state-sponsored terrorism fund based on a court ruling that some lawmakers and terrorism victims found hard to swallow: that Iran was partly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks waged by al-Qaeda terrorists, who were mostly from Saudi Arabia.
The ruling nonetheless opened the door to a new source of compensation for some 9/11 families, but access was denied to spouses and children of victims who had received payments from the separate 9/11 fund.
Eventually that exclusion was removed in a 2019 law. But with the state-sponsored terrorism fund now oversubscribed with claimants, and reliant on dwindling fines and penalties levied due to violations of U.S. sanctions laws, it soon became clear there wasn’t enough money to go around.
The new House bill would appropriate “such sums as are necessary” to shore up the fund. And the cost would be offset by tapping nearly $3 billion in unspent money from the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to small business owners who kept workers on the payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hope that these funds can provide some measure of comfort and justice to the people whose lives were changed forever that day,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the bill’s chief sponsor, during floor debate.
The new appropriation was based on an estimate from the Government Accountability Office, which calculated that providing “catch-up payments” to all 5,364 eligible 9/11 family members who were left out of previous compensation rounds would cost $2.7 billion.
Nadler’s legislation would ensure at least that amount and a little extra would be appropriated, rather than rely entirely on the fund’s traditional source of financing: civil and criminal penalties paid by companies sanctioned for doing business with countries linked to terrorism.
Nadler’s bill was based on a similar measure introduced last month by a bipartisan group led by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. The New York Republican flipped a Democratic-held district in 2020 and faces a rematch this fall with former Democratic Rep. Max Rose.
“This bill is truly about fairness and doing what’s right for the wives and the children, or the husbands and the children, of our first responders killed on Sept. 11,” Malliotakis said on the floor before the vote. “And 21 years later, this House is finally going to do the right thing.”
In a mild dig at Nadler, who took over the bill, she said the measure is “incredibly important to me and those that I represent. As a matter of fact, I drafted the legislation.”
Malliotakis voted for Nadler’s bill and dismissed the change of sponsorship. “You know as President Truman once said, it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” she said in floor debate.
House Judiciary ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and other top Republicans said they would back the bill, even as they blasted the process. House Democrats added the measure, which was formally introduced on Monday and never went through a hearing or markup, to the floor calendar late Thursday.
Jordan praised Malliotakis’ efforts, as well as as co-sponsor Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., and criticized Nadler for not taking up their earlier bill in the Judiciary panel.
“It’d been nice to have their bill in front of our committee for some debate,” Jordan said on the floor.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said Friday that lawmakers will try to shore up the separate World Trade Center Health Program “maybe even before the end of this year.” A bipartisan bill led by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., would provide more money for a fund that lawmakers say faces a $3 billion shortfall.
The fund provides medical treatment and monitoring for over 117,000 first responders and survivors of the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. That money could become part of an omnibus spending package for the upcoming fiscal year that lawmakers hope to pass by mid-December.
“We certainly will meet the health needs of our first responders on 9/11,” Pelosi said.
Laura Weiss and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.