WASHINGTON -- Pilloried by comedian Jon Stewart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to a vote by August for 9/11 first responders grappling with lingering illnesses from the toxins they inhaled rushing to the three sites targeted in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
And if he doesn't, the contingent of 9/11 first responders who met with him made sure he won't forget, leaving McConnell with the badge of Luis Alvarez, a gravely ill retired New York police detective who pleaded with Congress earlier this month to replenish the 9/11 Victim's Compensation Fund.
"If he strays from his commitment," warned John Feal, a construction worker who was injured at Ground Zero. "Then we'll go back into attack mode."
But Feal described a meeting in the Kentucky Republican's office at the U.S. Capitol that was respectful and productive.
"Today Mitch McConnell promised to work for us and I'm going to take him at his word," Feal said.
McConnell has been pilloried for weeks by former Daily Show host Stewart, who accused McConnell of slow-walking the legislation and using it as a political pawn.
McConnell met Tuesday for nearly 30 minutes with the group of responders, who said the meeting had been scheduled before Stewart's remarks about McConnell went viral.
More than 40,000 people have applied to the fund, which covers illnesses potentially related to rescue work at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
More than $5 billion in benefits have been awarded out of the $7.4 billion fund, with about 21,000 claims pending.
The fund is set to expire in 2020 unless Congress acts. It needs approval from the House and the Senate to continue.
Retired New York firefighter and Sept. 11 first responder Kenny Specht said he believes McConnell understands that the health care fund "is doing great work" but is running out of money to treat more first responders.
"For the first time he said he sensed the urgency," Specht said. "He used that term himself."