WASHINGTON — The White House Tuesday told Republicans to ditch an "awful" pre-Christmas bid to block a health bill for hero September 11 emergency workers, amid agonized tales by first responders of loss and sickness.
The bill, caught up in the fierce partisanship of a lame duck session of Congress, would offer health care to fire and police officers and other first responders who rushed to the scene of the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
Some emergency workers who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers have become sick and even died from ailments like cancer in the nine years since, purportedly from toxic substances contained in the wreckage.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called on Republicans, who say the bill lacks financial transparency and must be offset with spending cuts in other areas, to allow it to come to a vote before Christmas.
"It seems, at the end of a long year, around the holiday season, a pretty awful thing to play politics about," Gibbs said.
"But that's a decision that 42 Republican senators are going to have to make."
Republican senator Tom Coburn, a conservative budget hawk, said on Fox News on Tuesday he was opposed to the bill because it lacked accounting standards and would inevitably need to be fixed at the cost of more money.
"We're going to pass a bill -- and then we're going to have to come back and fix it, and we're going to waste a whole bunch more money and not fix the real problem which is taking care of those people who are so desperately dependent on it," Coburn said.
Coburn, a doctor, also complained that the bill had been rushed to the floor by Democratic leaders keen to eke every advantage before Republicans elected in November polls narrow the Democratic Senate majority in January.
But New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand warned that some first responders faced "horrific" and painful diseases, and that the Senate had a moral duty to help them.
Senior New York Senator Charles Schumer said the votes were there to pass the bill -- but Republicans could still run out the clock before the chamber breaks for Christmas this week.
"We plead with them -- please do not do that. That is not fair. That is not right.
"All these heroes are asking for is an up-or-down vote before Christmas. Waiting until next year would be a lump of coal, and we will not stand for it."
Several prominent first responder campaigners appeared with the senators at a press conference on Capitol Hill, many telling heart-rending stories of young colleagues who died from cancer believed to be related to the Ground Zero service.
John Feal, an advocate for September 11 first responders, called on the Senate to pass the bill quickly.
"Make no mistake: we're sick and dying, but we are not going away. Merry Christmas."
Glen Klein, of the New York Police Department added: "we're not asking to have a bill passed to send us to Disneyland. We're not asking to have a pool put in all our backyards. We're asking for the right to live."
Almost 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001 when planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda suicide operatives were flown into the World Trade Center, as well as the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.