- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - An election-year Senate fight is brewing over a bipartisan bill targeting heroin and opioid abuse that Democrats say needs another ingredient: more money.

Senators voted 89-0 Monday to begin considering the legislation, setting the stage for a showdown over an amendment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., providing $600 million in immediate anti-drug spending. Her proposal seems doomed for defeat by Republicans, who control the chamber and say Congress has already approved plenty of money for such programs that remains unspent.

“It seems to be part of the message, ‘Give us what we want or we might hijack a bipartisan bill that would literally save lives,’” No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said of Democrats.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a supporter of the extra funds, said money was needed “to stem this tide” of abuse, adding, “This cannot be a partisan issue.”

The dispute echoes long-running partisan fights over federal spending. This year, it comes as Republicans are hoping they can tout passage of the campaign-season measure as an accomplishment that shows they are addressing local problems.

The legislation has also reached the Senate floor as the GOP attempts to change the subject from their effort to stonewall any Supreme Court nomination made by President Barack Obama to fill the vacancy created by the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The anti-drug measure, sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is a response to an epidemic that has seen the drug overdose death rate more than double since 2000, with over 47,000 fatalities in 2014, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 28,000 of those deaths were from misuse of opioids and heroin.

The problem afflicts rural areas as well as cities. The five states with the highest death rates in 2014 were West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio.

Besides Portman, other GOP senators in tight re-election contests co-sponsoring the bill include Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.

The bill would create grant programs to help states, local government and nonprofit organizations expand drug prevention and treatment programs and bolster some law enforcement efforts.

Congress’ nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the measure would authorize $725 million worth of programs through 2021. The money would have to be provided in later legislation, though Republicans say $400 million in previously approved funds are already available.

Shaheen’s amendment would immediately provide $600 million for state and local law enforcement and substance abuse treatment and prevention programs.

Last week, the Senate confirmed Dr. Robert Califf to head the Food and Drug Administration, overcoming objections from some senators after he promised to add warning labels to popular painkillers and consult more with outside experts.

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