- The Washington Times - Monday, February 29, 2016

The Senate voted Monday to take up legislation to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that is ravaging communities across the nation, though the bipartisan bill could turn into an election-year football.

Democrats are saying the measure, which is designed to cut the supply of dangerous prescription drugs and boost therapeutic alternatives, isn’t complete unless Congress adds $600 million in emergency spending — a difficult task for an already tight budget.

They said Republicans will need to open the government checkbook to fight the drug epidemic as well as the threat of the Zika virus and to rescue Flint, Michigan, from its toxic water supply.

“We need to authorize these advances in dealing with the opioid crisis, but then we actually need to fund them,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “We can’t pretend that solving a problem as large as opioid addiction costs nothing.”

Republican leaders have rejected the growing calls for spending, saying the government has money in other accounts. For the drug epidemic, Republicans pointed to $400 million available to fund policies within the bill and said they can consider more money later, if needed.

“Recklessly throwing money at a problem rather than carefully targeting it in a fiscally responsible way is simply unacceptable,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “But it seems to be part of the message — that give us what we want, or we might hijack a bipartisan bill that would literally save lives.”

Dubbed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, the opioid bill is particularly important for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who wants to prove the Senate can still achieve great things in an election year, and for Senate Republicans facing re-election in hard-hit states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who co-authored the bill with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, has been a vocal cheerleader for the effort, which would help states monitor prescribing practices, expand the number of sites where parents can dispose of unneeded painkillers and distribute more naloxone — a treatment that can reverse the effects of an overdose — to law enforcement agencies and first responders.

“The abuse of heroin and prescription drugs is devastating our local communities,” Portman spokesman Kevin Smith said. “Rob is committed to passing this measure because it will help more Americans put their lives back together and achieve their God-given potential.”

Monday’s 89-0 vote to proceed on the bill cues up a series of likely votes on amendments this week, notably a bid by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, to free up $600 million immediately to tackle the epidemic.

The amendment seems headed for defeat, given the majority’s resistance, unless Democrats can sway enough vulnerable Republicans to back the proposal.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican facing re-election, has backed her state counterpart.

Mr. Portman, who also must defend his seat, hasn’t taken a position on the Shaheen amendment.

So far, he has pointed to money that is already available, including $80 million from last year’s omnibus bill, but left the door open to additional funding.

Republican aides said they hope the chance to vote on Mrs. Shaheen’s amendment will dissuade Democrats from scuttling the overall bill.

Several weeks ago, Democrats filibustered a bipartisan energy bill after Republican refused to provide $300 million in emergency funds for the Flint water crisis. The standoff put the bill on hold as negotiators worked to hammer out a compromise.

Republican leaders said they don’t want another bill to stall out.

“This is not the way the Senate gets anything accomplished,” Mr. Cornyn said. “As I’ve said before, playing political games with important issues like fighting drug addiction is what lost our [Democratic] friends the majority in 2014.”

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