The Senate easily passed legislation Wednesday to combat the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that is killing dozens of Americans each day, despite Democratic complaints that Congress hasn’t provided enough funding to tackle the problem.
Bill sponsors said the lopsided 94-1 vote should pressure the House to take up and pass its version of the measure, which seeks to cut the flow of addictive drugs while boosting treatment options.
“This is a strong signal that the United States Congress now gets this issue,” said Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who wrote the bill with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.
The effort was a rare sign of bipartisanship in the chamber, which has been bitterly divided in an election year amid sparring over the effort to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Members of both parties have sounded the alarm over the spike in abuse of opioid painkillers and heroin, which affect the body in similar ways and are causing frequent overdoses.
Forty-four people die each day from overdosing on prescription opioid drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and four out of five heroin users get hooked by using painkillers first. In some places, more people die from using these drugs than from car accidents.
Dubbed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, the Senate bill 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, among other reforms.
Yet Senate Democrats fumed last week when the Republican majority rejected their bid to attach $600 million in emergency funding to the bill. The White House, too, argued that without more funding, the bill “would do little to address the epidemic,” though it stopped short of a veto threat.
Republican leaders said Congress set aside $400 million last year, or enough to implement many of the bill’s policies, and that lawmakers can free up more during this year’s appropriations process.
Democrats said the extent of the crisis called for upfront cash, however, and that Congress would be forced to take from other addiction recovery programs in the meantime.
“It is time to get serious and call it what it is: a public health crisis that demands real, immediate investment, not more empty rhetoric, not more empty gestures,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.
Democrats rallied behind the underlying bill, though, and Thursday’s lone “no” vote came from Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican.
“I’m distressed by opioid abuse as a dad and citizen. Families, nonprofits and government at the state and local level can help. I’m not convinced fighting addiction — as opposed to stopping drug traffickers — is best addressed at the federal level,” Mr. Sasse said.
The opioids bill was particularly important to Senate Republicans who represent states hit hard by rising drug abuse rates and who face re-election in November, including Mr. Portman and Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
For weeks, Ohio Democrats have accused Mr. Portman of paying lip service to the problem without funding solutions.
“Sen. Portman can’t escape his despicable record of D.C. double-talk: bragging in Ohio about his drug abuse prevention efforts and then turning around in Washington and opposing funding to tackle the epidemic,” said Ohio Democratic Party Executive Director Greg Beswick.
Mr. Portman is training his sights on the House, where a companion bill by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, enjoys bipartisan support from 92 co-sponsors.
Just to be sure, however, Mr. Portman personally rang up Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Thursday to urge immediate action on the bill.
“The House now needs to take it up,” Mrs. Ayotte said, “and do the right thing.”