April 12, 2002 -- WASHINGTON

A Vermont senator has single-handedly killed a plan to honor the cops and firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11 with special presidential medals, The Post has learned.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pulled the plug on legislation to bestow the "Presidential Medal of Valor" on public-safety workers who perished in the terror attacks.

The new medal, which is the nation's highest public-safety award, was created about a year ago, and the 9/11 heroes were set to become its first recipients.

Leahy's decision sinks the honor, which was approved by the House on Oct. 30 - by a 409-0 margin.

The bill was then sent to Leahy's committee in the Democratic-run Senate. As chairman, Leahy has decided not to bring the measure to a committee vote, effectively killing it, aides said.

In a statement to The Post, Leahy noted that an "independent advisory panel" of ex-cops and former firefighters is supposed to nominate and review medal candidates - a process that was not being followed in this case.

"It is fitting that public-safety officers themselves play a role in selecting the honorees," the statement said.

Leahy's aides said he opposed medals for the 9/11 heroes because Congress - not the advisory panel - had determined the recipients.

The 11-member panel has met only once, and didn't discuss the 9/11 medals.

The senator's aides also said that under the legislation creating the medal, a maximum of only five per year are supposed to be doled out.

Nearly 400 NYPD and Port Authority cops, firefighters and other emergency personnel lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Leahy's move has New York lawmakers fuming.

"This is really frustrating," said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens), whose firefighter cousin died on 9/11.

"This is a no-brainer. Those guys knew what was facing them, and still they put that frickin' gear on and raced up the stairwells. If that's not heroism, I don't know what is," Crowley told The Post.

When Crowley's bill reached the Senate, New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer vowed to make sure that the first medals went to the heroes who died saving others on Sept. 11.

Clinton and Schumer said yesterday that they still support the bill.

The medals were intended to show gratitude toward the firefighters, cops and EMS workers who rushed into the doomed towers to rescue people.

The authority to give the medals dates back to last May, when they were OK'd by President Bush.

Proponents even talked of melting scrap metal from the trade center to create the medals.

The Pentagon recently awarded its own valor medal to employees who responded to the hijacking crash there, after creating a special category of recognition for civilian workers. Military workers were given Purple Hearts.