- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A long-awaited bill to combat the prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic breezed through the Senate on Wednesday and onto President Obama’s desk, delivering a major win to Republican leaders who stared down Democrats itching for a fight over spending.

The bill, which pushes alternatives to incarceration for those addicted to opioids and expands access to Naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of an overdose, cleared easily, with all sides saying the federal government needs to step in to battle a crisis that has ruined lives nationwide.

The 92-2 vote masked simmering dissension among Democrats, who wanted nearly $1 billion in emergency money attached to the bill but had to settle for Republican promises to include nearly $600 million in the 2017 spending bills combined with money already in the pipeline this year.

Democrats will have another chance to take a stand on spending this week, when Republicans ask for a do-over on legislation to combat the Zika virus. Democrats mounted a filibuster to block the bill last month, insisting on more money with fewer strings than Republicans want to allow.

Both bills were considered priorities to pass before Congress leaves town for a seven-week recess.

“Today’s strong bipartisan vote is a victory for American families who are struggling with the disease of addiction,” said Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who co-wrote the Senate’s opioid bill. “This is a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress has passed comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever supported long-term addiction recovery.”

The rate of opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin hit record levels in 2014, killing nearly 30,000 people, and polling shows two-thirds of Americans want Congress to do more to address the crisis in a contentious election year.

More people are dying from the epidemic than from automobile accidents in some places, and pop music legend Prince died of an opioid fentanyl overdose in April, raising the visibility of the issue.

Presidential candidates from both parties have called for action while campaigning in states such as New Hampshire and Ohio, where the effects of the epidemic are particularly acute.

In Congress, the crisis spawned bipartisan efforts to push treatment over jail time. The Senate passed an anti-addition package, and the House responded with a series of bills.

None of them included funding, though, and when a House-Senate compromise emerged last week without money, Democrats signaled that they would vote against the bill.

Instead, however, they rallied, saying they would fight for money another day. They launched the first salvo in that effort Wednesday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“With the opioid epidemic crippling communities around the country, every day that counsellors and treatment centers do not have the resources to help those fighting opioid use disorders is a day lost. We hope that you will schedule a vote on legislation that provides substantial funding to address the opioid and heroin epidemic as soon as possible,” the Democratic caucus wrote.

Yet every Democrat supported the bill Wednesday. Only two Senate Republicans — Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mike Lee of Utah — rejected it.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama will sign the bill “because some action is better than none,” although the president won’t stop pleading for more funding.

“Congressional Republicans have not done their jobs until they provide the funding for treatment that communities need to combat this epidemic,” Mr. Earnest said.

Fights over spending have held up a number of bills this year. A package to help Flint, Michigan, recover from lead-tainted water was delayed as Democrats demanded more money, and the Zika bill is still in limbo.

The mosquito-borne disease is already circulating through bug bites in Puerto Rico, and scientists fear it will soon spread on its own in the states.

Mr. Obama asked for $1.9 billion to fund the search for a vaccine and to pay for mosquito eradication efforts this year.

The Senate passed a bill offering $1.1 billion, while the House countered with a bill spending $622 million — and requiring that the money be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The compromise that emerged from Republican negotiators from the House and Senate takes the Senate’s higher spending number but offsets some $750 million of it with cuts, as the House wanted. The legislation also includes restrictions on who can receive the money, preventing Planned Parenthood from being part of the birth control efforts.

Senate Democrats have refused to accept the deal, meaning lawmakers are set to leave Capitol Hill for seven weeks without funding an effort that all sides view as an emergency.

“This is why people hate Congress. This is why people hate Washington,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat.

Republicans say there’s plenty of money for contraceptives at public health departments, hospitals and Medicaid managed-care clinics in places with active transmission of the disease, so it makes little sense to hold up the entire package over a handful of Planned Parenthood-allied clinics in Puerto Rico.

“Democrats are now upset because a political supporter doesn’t get a special carve-out, so they’re demanding an earmark for this partisan group as the cost of ending their attack on women’s health and their blockade of anti-Zika funding,” Mr. McConnell said.

He also said the administration is undermining its own advice by crying foul over a provision in the proposal that would temporarily roll back Clean Water Act rules to allow for more efficient spraying to kill mosquitoes.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency told Puerto Rico to ramp up its aerial bug-killing efforts because Zika is spreading on its own there and could soon infect dozens of pregnant women per day.

Pesticides to kill mosquitoes are regulated by the EPA, so forcing a team to gain a permit would add duplicative red tape that discourages spraying, Senate Republicans said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said Wednesday that the water act allows local officials to spray in emergencies so long as they notify federal regulators. She said Republicans went too far by axing the entire section of the law.

“You may not get the Zika, but your kid could get cancer from swimming in water that’s laden with pesticide that’s very harmful,” she said. “Where is that sensible?”

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