WASHINGTON — A bill that would have provided up to $7.4 billion in aid to people sickened by World Trade Center dust fell short in the House this week, raising the possibility that the bulk of compensation for the ill would come from a legal settlement hammered out in the federal courts.
The bill would have provided free health care and compensation payments to Sept. 11 rescue and recovery workers who fell ill after working in the trade center ruins.
It failed to win the needed two-thirds majority, 255 to 159, late Thursday. The vote was largely along party lines, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats supporting the measure.
For weeks, a judge and teams of lawyers have been urging 10,000 former ground zero workers to sign on to a court-supervised settlement that would split $713 million among people who developed respiratory problems and other illnesses after inhaling trade center ash.
The court deal shares some similarities with the aid program that the federal legislation would have created, but it involves far less money. Only the most seriously ill of the thousands of police officers, firefighters, and construction workers suing New York City over their exposure to the dust would be eligible for a hefty payout.
But supporters of the deal have been saying the court settlement is the only realistic option for the sick, because Congress will never act.
Democratic leaders opted to consider the House bill under a procedure that requires a two-thirds vote for approval rather than a simple majority. Such a move blocked potential GOP amendments to the measure.
A key backer of the bill, US Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican, accused Democrats of staging a “charade.’’
King said Democrats were “petrified’’ about casting votes as the fall elections near on controversial amendments, possibly including one that could ban the bill from covering illegal immigrants who were sickened by trade center dust.
If Democrats brought it to the floor as a regular bill, King said, it would have passed with majority support.