- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A long-awaited bill to combat the prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic breezed through a Senate test vote Wednesday, clearing the way for final passage and President Obama’s signature.

Senators voted 90-2 to advance the bipartisan effort after months of negotiations that hinged on Democratic demands for hundreds of millions in new spending to tackle the opioid crisis, which is affecting every corner of the country and killing thousands.

GOP leaders rejected those demands, saying there is plenty of money in the pipeline to fight addiction, including $581 million in next year’s health spending bill.

“At a time when drug overdoses claim 129 American lives every day, it’s painfully clear that we need to do more now,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “That’s why this Senate majority has provided more than double the funding that the previous majority provided for opioid-related issues. That’s why this Senate majority has made passing this comprehensive response a priority.”

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

In some places, more people are dying from the epidemic than from automobile accidents.

Congressional negotiators melded a sweeping Senate plan with a series of House bills to forge a final package that expands access to overdose-reversing medicine and bolsters therapeutic alternatives for addicts, in place of incarceration.

House Democrats initially signaled they would block the deal, after Republicans rejected their efforts to add nearly $1 billion to the package by trimming Medicare to free up the money.

Instead, Democrats beat a retreat and unanimously backed its passage Friday, all but ensuring that Senate Democrats would not filibuster to block the deal on their side of the Capitol.

Only two Republicans — Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mike Lee of Utah — voted Wednesday not to proceed on the bill.

The Senate, however, is still deadlocked over a separate health crisis — how to stem the tide of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which causes birth defects.

Zika is already circulating through bug bite on Puerto Rico, and scientists fear it will soon spread on its own in the states and D.C.

Senate Democrats are filibustering a $1.1-billion Zika bill crafted by GOP leaders from either chamber, saying it’s not enough money, should fund contraceptives at Planned Parenthood and undercuts environmental protections in a rush to eradicate virus-carrying mosquitoes.

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