To understand the depths of shame and cynicism in the partisan stalling of health legislation for 9/11 first responders, it is only necessary to recall how eagerly Republican politicians once rushed to identify themselves with New York City’s finest and bravest.

Nothing was easier, during the months and years that followed the terror attacks of September 2001, than to cloak oneself in the nobility of the police officers, firefighters and construction workers who rushed to the smoking ruins — and the leaders of the Republican Party never hesitated to use them and the city as symbols, culminating in the party’s 2004 national convention in Manhattan.

Unfortunately for those heroes, they are no longer so fashionable in right-wing circles and neither is their hometown. Even as they suffer from the cancers and pulmonary illnesses that have beset them as a result of their service, they seem to be scorned among conservatives in Congress as just another “special interest” seeking a new “entitlement.”

If only the first responders had asked for help back when they were still useful as political props! (And not merely as partisan hostages to help preserve the Bush tax cuts for the GOP’s wealthiest patrons.)

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named for a police officer who died from a respiratory disease in 2006, has been in the works for several years — which means that Republican leaders have had many, many opportunities to improve what ought to have been a bipartisan measure from the beginning.

Instead, they dishonestly complained about the bill suddenly appearing in the last hours of the lame-duck session. Actually, there have been hours of hearings on how best to provide care and funding, and the Democratic sponsors have made every effort to ensure that this legislation is carefully crafted, both fiscally and programmatically. It is capped at less than $7 billion, will sunset in a decade and sets forth strict guidelines for providing benefits.

So what is the real Republican objection to the Zadroga bill? That isn’t clear, because almost none of the GOP senators who unanimously blocked a vote on the bill has had the courage to explain his or her position on the Senate floor or on television. Their propensity for posturing on the deficit is one possibility; another is their poisonous attitude toward unionized public servants, a category that includes police and firefighters as well as teachers and postal workers. Or perhaps they dislike the bill’s financing via closure of a corporate tax loophole, which has provoked howls of protest from the Chamber of Commerce.

Conservative politicians still remain quick to exploit raw emotion over 9/11 when the opportunity presents itself, as in the debate over the Islamic community center proposed for a site in lower Manhattan. The hallowed ground zero is sacred to every American, according to the blowhards who indulged in those cheap anti-Muslim rants — but the suffering and dying who hurried there in the hours of danger must now fend for themselves.

Certain Republicans bear considerable responsibility for ensuring the passage of this legislation, and very few of them have stepped up. Rudolph Giuliani spoke out briefly in favor of the bill, but “Mayor 9/11” ought to have lobbied his party’s senators far more vigorously — in person, if necessary. What about George W. Bush, whose best-selling presidential memoir dwells at length on his own jut-jawed version of his role in 9/11 history?

To abandon those whom we so rightly venerated is to bring permanent dishonor on the entire nation. Why would the Republicans want to stain themselves with this indelible disgrace?

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2010

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