‘Never meant to be triggered’: A rally for 9/11 health money as the debt ceiling deal comes due

Gillibrand leads a rally to stave off sequestration cuts. (Reid Pillifant)
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The sequestration theater has begun.

At a press conference near the World Trade Center Monday, a handful of elected officials, union leaders and activists prepared for a "worst-cast scenario" in which Congress fails to reach a compromise to avoid across-the-board budget cuts that were part of last year's compromise to raise the federal debt ceiling.

The scheduled cuts come after a so-called "super committee" failed to negotiate a deal to reduce the deficit, and they include a reduction in the hard-fought funding for the September 11 health care bill.

"Sequestration is the wrong method to reduce the deficit and was never meant to be triggered," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose office organized the event, which featured most of the legislators who pushed the health care bill through Congress two years ago. 

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Among the concerned speakers were several members of Congress who had voted against the debt-ceiling deal, including Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, and a couple who had voted for it, including Democratic senator Chuck Schumer and Republican congressman Peter King.

Gillibrand and Schumer both mentioned that the September 11 bill was fully paid for, as a condition of its contentious passage in 2010.

"We found the money," Schumer said. "A little genius on my staff found the money. So it would be a dereliction of our responsibility and of fairness to keep that money in the federal government fund … and yet not use it for its intended purpose, the illnesses of those who rushed to the tower."

There is one potential avenue to save the money, even if Congress fails to reach a compromise to stave off the cuts: the Office of Management and Budget can issue a waiver to keep the funding.

"No one wants to seek sequestration," Gillibrand said. "So our goal is to try to number one, avoid sequestration and then, number two, if it does go forward, make sure this program is exempt."

The calls for restoration of the September 11 cuts will inevitably be one of many requests by members of Congress across the country to stave off particular cuts for programs and projects that affect their constituents, which was part of the original logic of imposing such a wide-ranging sequestration.

Schumer, who serves as a key member of the Senate leadership, slipped away shortly after giving his remarks, and wasn't around to comment on the status of any debt negotiations.

King, the lone Republican legislator and a longtime friend of House Speaker John Boehner, said he hadn't yet spoken to the House leadership about the cuts to the September 11 health care bill.