Opioid abuse bill easily overcomes first Senate hurdle

by Placerville Newswire / Mar 02, 2016 / comments

[By Jordain Carney]   A bipartisan bill to combat opiod drug abuse overwhelmingly passed its first procedural hurdle on Monday.

Senators voted 89-0 on the legislation, with 60 votes needed to move forward.

Republicans, however, warned that despite the overwhelming vote, a path to final passage for the bill — spearheaded by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — isn’t guaranteed.

“There are some signals on the horizon that indicate some potential trouble,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday. “Part of the message ... [is] give us what we want or we might hijack a bipartisan bill that would literally save lives.”

Democrats want $600 million in emergency funds to be added to the legislation, but are tightlipped about whether they are willing to sink the otherwise bipartisan legislation if the money isn’t included.

“I would hope that it wouldn’t come to that. We’re all interested in addressing this issue, whether it’s through funding or what’s in the [Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery] bill. Everybody would benefit by working together,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is leading the charge for the extra money, told reporters when asked if she would block the measure.

Shaheen said that she was still waiting to hear if her amendment would be able to get a vote. She declined to comment on whether Democrats would block the legislation if it doesn’t.

While Democrats say they want to help combat the opioid and heroin epidemic, they argue the extra money is essential for communities ravaged by drug abuse to act quickly.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) authorizes — but doesn’t appropriate — funding for programs to combat prescription drug and heroin abuse, in addition to increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug to treat overdose.

While the legislation easily passed its initial test, Democrats could still slow down the Senate’s consideration through a lengthy amendment fight or block the bill from getting a final vote.

Republicans argue that any funding should go through the regular appropriations process; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted ahead of the vote that there was approximately $400 million available from the omnibus bill passed late last year.

Republicans will need the support of at least six Democratic senators to help the legislation get over additional procedural hurdles.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose state has been affected by the crisis, suggested on Monday afternoon that he supports the legislation, calling it a “good step,” though he plans to offer amendments.

Monday’s overwhelming vote came after McConnell suggested late last week that he was “hopeful” senators would be able to get a deal on amendments.

Getting the legislation passed would give McConnell an early election-year victory as well as send a clear signal that the Senate can still govern amid a deeply partisan Supreme Court battle.

It would also represent a win for Portman, who faces a tough reelection bid and has put fighting the drug epidemic at the center of his campaign.

The Ohio Republican suggested to The Hill late last week that he was optimistic the legislation would be able keep Democratic support even without the additional funding, adding that he wants to keep his bill nonpartisan.

“To me it’s never been a political issue,” he said at the time, when asked about attacks from Democrats. “I hope they don’t make it one now.”

Democrats, however, are targeting Portman and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), suggesting that the vulnerable lawmakers are using their support for CARA to brush over mixed voting records.

Both of the senators voted against a spending bill late last year that included extra funding to help combat the opioid crisis, though their opposition was unrelated to the funding for the drug overdose crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that drug overdose deaths reached historic levels in 2014, with an individual more likely to die by overdose than in a car crash.