With a boost from some Hollywood royalty Wednesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are increasingly bullish about the likelihood they’ll be able to boost mental health spending in response to the Newtown school shooting, even as Democrats vowed not to let that spoil their push for a broader crackdown on gun ownership.
Actress and multiple Oscar-contender Glenn Close visited the Capitol on Wednesday to tout legislation from Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would let behavioral health centers get federal Medicaid reimbursements.
“We need to be treating the diseases above the neck the same we do those below the neck,” Ms. Stabenow said.
Her bill would create a 10-state pilot program where states would demonstrate that the centers meet the necessary standards and provide certain services, such as substance-abuse treatment and 24-hour crisis care.
Nearly two dozen co-sponsors have signed on, and the bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee last week. Congress’s nonpartisan budget scorekeeper estimates the plan would cost $1.6 billion over 10 years.
Mr. Blunt and Ms. Stabenow were confident the bill would pass the Senate because they attached it to what they say is a “must-pass” bill to fix cuts in payments to doctors that treat Medicare patients.
Mr. Blunt said they’ve also been talking with members of the House, and said Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, has introduced more expansive mental health legislation of his own in the GOP-controlled House.
“Acts of violence [are] one of the things that’s brought us to look at this as a Senate and as a country again,” Mr. Blunt said. “We see over and over again in tragedy after tragedy, one absolute common thread is a behavioral health issue that hasn’t been dealt with.”
But Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and one of the co-sponsors of the Excellence in Mental Health Act, said that Congress must also do more on guns, after the shooting deaths a year ago of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“There’s no simple solution,” Mr. Murphy said. “I know that sometimes it seems like the only thing we come down here and talk about are stricter gun laws. I just don’t believe there’s any reason why we don’t require criminal background checks for guns before they’re purchased or that we don’t just simply say that these dangerous assault weapons should stay out of the hands of people who aren’t in law enforcement or the military.”
In April, legislation that would have expanded gun-purchase background checks to sales online and at gun shows failed to pass in the Senate. Currently, only federally licensed dealers are required to perform the checks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in marking the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings, said Congress’s failure to pass background check legislation was “shameful” and vowed that Democrats would continue to press forward on the issue.
“Why should someone that has severe mental illness and someone who is a criminal be able to purchase a gun? They shouldn’t,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Those that are trying to stop this legislation from going forward should be embarrassed [and] ashamed of themselves.”
“The American people will prevail on this issue,” Mr. Reid continued. “It’s gonna happen — it’s only a question of when it happens.”