Jon Stewart has ripped into a nearly empty House Judiciary Committee hearing on re-funding the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, calling congress’s treatment of the now-ailing first responders to America’s most deadly terrorist attack “utterly unacceptable”.

The comedian received a standing ovation from 9/11 responders and victims, including retired New York Police Department bomb-squad detective Louis Alvarez, who is set to begin his 69th round of chemotherapy on Wednesday, following the impassioned speech.

Before them sat just a handful of congressional members of the committee, and a lot of empty chairs.

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“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” Stewart said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.”

“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one,” he continued. “Shameful. It is an embarrassment to the country and it is a stain on this institution.”

Stewart has long advocated on behalf of 9/11 first responders, and noted that many of those responders are only in Washington because congress has forced them to repeatedly come and lobby on their own behalf for help with medical conditions stemming from their brave actions 17 years ago when planes crashed into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.

“None of these people want to be here. But they are, and they’re not here for themselves,” Stewart said, noting that some made their way to Capitol Hill even though their bodies are “riddled with cancer and pain”.

“They’re here to continue fighting for what’s right.”

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The 9/11 reauthorisation marks the third time that Congress has considered such action since 2010, when concerns about fraud and abuse were first raised in Washington, leading to cuts to the programme so that it would only last five years. That reauthorisation was approved with razor thin margins just before Christmas.

The programme was taken up again in 2015, when the treatment for 9/11 responders was extended for 75 years, but the Victims Compensation Fund was only padded with $7 billion. That funding is already running out.

Stewart and those 9/11 responders and victims were testifying in the hopes that they can spur a vote in the committee on Wednesday.

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