Congress is speeding a “landmark” package to battle opioid addiction to President Trump’s desk before the midterm elections, giving incumbents a platform to reel in voters who have been affected by addiction or want to thwart harmful traffickers.
Yet campaign watchers don’t think their efforts will make a huge splash on Election Day, saying the opioids push is not a historic motivator like, say, Obamacare.
It’s also a consolation prize for GOP leaders who have struggled to turn their tax overhaul into a powerful shield against a potential “blue wave” of Democratic victories in November.
“Certainly it’s a big win, and one of the few bipartisan pieces of legislation of consequence likely to pass,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “In the end, it won’t help the Republicans much on how the voters view their efforts to repeal the [Affordable Care Act] or the passage of the tax package.”
House GOP leaders are pushing for a vote on the opioids package, finalized late Tuesday, before the end of the week, setting the stage for Senate action and Mr. Trump’s signature on the 660-page bill.
Republican leaders say it will address every angle of the crisis, which is killing more than 100 Americans each day. They are throwing roughly $8 billion at the opioids problem this year, though Democrats say more is needed, with liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren calling for $100 billion over 10 years.
Republicans have been quick to highlight legislative contributions from GOP incumbents such as Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and John J. Faso of New York, who pushed to expand the use of non-opioid alternatives for pain. Both are facing tight re-election races in swing districts that could determine whether Democrats retake the chamber.
Indeed, the opioids bill could benefit “certain candidates in certain races in some states, to show they have passed something that voters definitely care about,” Mr. Madonna said.
Ms. Comstock said people stop her at parades or church services to bring up the issue and praise her efforts to coordinate the response in her district, saying it’s a problem that affects a wide swath of her constituency.
“It’s something that comes up in every part of the district,” she said in an interview, noting the epidemic is undermining the social fabric and economic productivity in the area.
A pair of employees recently overdosed at the same auto-body shop in her district, which stretches from suburbs west of Washington to the mountainous terrain near West Virginia.
“It’s integrated into everything,” she said of the crisis.
Her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, is pushing back by touting her own state-level efforts to better track prescribing of painkillers and expand the use of overdose-reversing drugs, plus her vote to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to broaden treatment options.
Across the national electorate, farmers and laborers who got injured and hooked on prescription painkillers might appreciate the bill’s funding for treatment, while a push to help package inspectors root out deadly synthetic drugs from overseas will appeal to those who say it’s time to get tough on traffickers, said Richard C. Ausness, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who tracks the opioids debate.
“It looks like the bill has something for everyone and, therefore, should be popular with politicians and with the general public,” Mr. Ausness said.
Still, the effort is struggling for airtime amid a bare-knuckled fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and gripes over President Trump’s unpredictable style and tweets.
“Lots of polls are moving in favor of Democrats based on Trump’s unpopularity so I don’t think the opioid bill will help Republicans even though it is important legislation,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies for the Brookings Institution.
When it comes to the public’s priorities for Washington, the opioids fight has struggled to break out of the middle of the pack.
Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation said 42 percent of the public viewed efforts to the address the crisis as a “top priority” for Congress, putting it ahead of Mr. Trump’s border wall, repealing Obamacare or passing legislation to protect immigrant “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Voters were more concerned, however, about the rising cost of prescription drugs and fixing U.S. roads and infrastructure — a pair of topics that have been discussed at length this year, though haven’t been the subject of comprehensive legislation on Capitol Hill.
“I would say that addressing the opioid epidemic is a mid-level priority for the public, but unlike a lot of other issues, it’s one that cuts across partisan lines in terms of importance,” said Liz Hamel, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s director of public opinion and survey research.
Bipartisanship may be a good look for a divided Congress, yet analysts say it doesn’t translate into a political edge at the polls.
“It gets passed and people move on. There’s no resonance. I’m not saying it’s not important, but people just expect it and there’s no huge gain out of it,” Mr. Madonna said. “The bigger problem would be if you didn’t fund it.”
Some Democrats are attuned to that as they seek an edge in November, saying the current effort is worthwhile but doesn’t reflect the extent of the crisis.
“Glad to see this [opioids bill] moving forward, but we need to expedite the process in order to save lives,” tweeted Jenny Wilson, a Salt Lake City Council member and Democratic opponent of high-profile Republican Mitt Romney, in Utah’s Senate race. “Hundreds of people die every day in the U.S. from opioid overdoses. We can’t delay.”
Mr. Faso’s Democratic opponent in upstate New York, Antonio Delgado, took a veiled swipe at his Republican foe in his campaign webpage on the opioids crisis, saying, “Our elected leaders, long negligent and absent, must lead decisively and immediately.”