BY Michael Mcauliff
Daily News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Congress gave America's 9/11 responders their first reason to smile in nine years, pushing a measure to care for sick heroes halfway to reality.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act survived intense backroom negotiations, then passed by an overwhelming 268 to 160 vote while more than 100 responders and family watched from the House gallery.
Among them was Joe Zadroga, whose police detective son, James, lost his life to a 9/11-linked illness and lent his name to the $7.4 billion measure to help others like him and their families.
"I was so overjoyed when that bill passed today, I had tears in my eyes," said Zadroga later, weeping again.
"It was outstanding," said Victor Fiorella, retired from Ladder 114 in Sunset Park. "Congress did something for people who are hurting, and really need it."
Still the celebration was tempered.
The bill still must pass in the Senate - and leaders there recessed last night until after the November elections. Other important measures have gone to the Senate only to die.
"We have one more stop on the way to the President's desk," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned.
"We are determined to continue to do whatever it takes to turn this promise of help into the reality of a law," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), a key sponsor of the proposal. [See who donates the most money to Maloney.]
Even as the bill was being debated in the House yesterday, some responders walked the halls of the Senate, talking to dozens of GOP senators.
"This is just a short-lived victory," said John Feal, who lost half his foot at Ground Zero but was one of those walking the halls yesterday.
"I could tell you, there's a storm coming in the Senate and we're going to be resilient, more so than ever," Feal added. "I'm confident that Barack Obama is going to sign this bill."
The President has pledged to do so.
The bill includes more than $3 billion for compensating people who got sick after responding to the terrorist attacks - or lived and worked among the toxic fumes and dust.
The rest of the money will fund treatment.
The bill does not affect the 9/11 lawsuit against the city, and includes a provision to offset any payments from the suit so people cannot double dip.
The House vote could have gone down to defeat if Republicans had attached an immigration measure, but sources told the Daily News that Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.) and Mayor Bloomberg successfully lobbied GOP leaders not to do so.
"Today, we put aside a little politics and we did a little right, and a little good," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), who co-sponsored the bill with Maloney and King.