BY Michael Mcauliff
DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON - A key senator who is balking at legislation to help ailing 9/11 responders backed similar steps for sick nuclear workers in his home state.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, refuses to take a public position on the $7.4 billion James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, but sources say that in private discussions he has not supported it.
When he was running for reelection two years ago, McConnell touted his support for a law that compensated "patriots" who worked to build America's nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
McConnell said as much in an ad that sounds remarkably like the case for helping Americans who came from all over the country to toil in the toxins of Ground Zero - and got sick after officials said it was safe.
"During the Cold War, America's security depended on nuclear strength. Workers at Paducah's gaseous diffusion plant are patriots who did some of the most dangerous work," the ad says.
"We always knew the job was dangerous," says nuke worker David Fuller in the ad. "What we found out along the way was that it was more dangerous than what we were made aware of."
McConnell's spot crows that he won both a cancer screening program and compensation for people who were ignored and dying because of their service - much like 9/11's neglected responders.
"Really all we're asking for is the same thing that was done for nuclear workers," said Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.). "I would hope that Mitch McConnell realizes that 9/11 workers were just as victimized as the nuclear workers were, and they all should be protected by the federal government."
Advocates for 9/11 responders argued that McConnell's constituents would be all for him backing the Zadroga bill.
"If he's only going to help the people of Kentucky, he's a homer; he doesn't deserve to be a national leader," said John Feal, founder of the Fealgood Foundation.
"Kentucky people are some of the most patriotic people in the country," Feal said. "They would be embarrassed if they knew Mitch McConnell was not supporting 9/11's patriots."
The Zadroga bill needs two Republican senators to sign on in order to pass. Insiders believe one is ready to join, but if McConnell said yes, many more likely would follow.
"His vote is a lot more important than just his one vote - it's a lot more what he does as party leader," said one person involved in negotiations. "If he makes this a free vote, 10 or 15 Republicans will probably vote for it."
The Senate is expected to meet just three more weeks before the start of the new Congress next year, and if the bill does not pass, it will be dead.