Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Senate defeated a proposal that would have addressed important health issues facing America’s firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
By a vote of 45-51, the Senate rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.) to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to protect first responders who receive the smallpox vaccine and provide millions more to study the health effects of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the New York City firefighters who were on the scene.
The vote on the Byrd amendment came during the Senate’s consideration of the omnibus appropriation bill for FY ’03. Congress has been forced to attempt to pass one giant omnibus appropriation bill for the entire government because it was unable to pass the 13 individual appropriation bills last year.
Once the Senate gives final approval to the bill, which is currently being debated on the Senate floor, the legislation will go into a House-Senate conference committee where the final version will be written.
Because the massive funding bill has bypassed the House of Representatives and the Senate committee process, it has attracted numerous amendments. As the leading Democrat on the Senate Appropriation Committee, Senator Byrd was given the assignment to craft a comprehensive amendment on homeland security issues. Byrd’s amendment addressed a number of pressing national concerns, including the two fire fighter health issues.
The health screening for NYC emergency responders was similar to language that Congress approved last summer as part of a special supplemental appropriation package. The funding was derailed when President Bush vetoed the plan to track the long-term health effects on firefighters and other rescue workers who responded to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The smallpox issue arose more recently, spurred by criticisms of the Bush Administration’s Smallpox Vaccination Program. The IAFF and organizations that represent health care workers have complained that the smallpox program lacks adequate safeguards to protect the health and rights of those who receive the vaccine. Byrd proposed spending $850 million to address these shortfalls.
Unless the issues can be revived later on the Senate floor, it appears unlikely that either the New York City health screening or the smallpox protections will be funded this year.