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Opioid Bill Clears First Senate Hurdle

From left, Ayotte, Shaheen, Portman and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, testify at a hearing on the opioid bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
From left, Ayotte, Shaheen, Portman and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, testify at a hearing on the opioid bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A bill to combat the opioid epidemic cleared its first procedural hurdle in the Senate, but a conflict over whether senators will vote to tack emergency funds onto the legislation raises questions about its fate.  

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, whose state has been especially hard hit by heroin and opioid abuse, has put forward an amendment that would direct $600 million towards law enforcement grants and tracking prescription drugs to combat the crisis, as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. On Monday, the Senate voted 89-0 to move forward toward considering the bill, but it’s unclear whether the amendment will come up for a vote.  

“We haven’t gotten an answer yet. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that,” Shaheen said. Asked if she would vote against CARA if her amendment is not considered, Shaheen responded, “I would hope that it wouldn’t come to that. We’re all interested in addressing this issue. whether it’s through funding or through what’s in the CARA bill. Everybody would benefit by our working together.”  

Democrats have argued that Congress must put up the money necessary to combat the opioid and heroin crisis, in addition to authorizing additional programs.

“The CARA bill is a good bill, but we need real funding, it’s an emergency,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-highest ranking Democrat. “This is an emergency. We can’t wait for the appropriations process.”

Republicans have countered that funding requests should go through the appropriations process, and they have accused Democrats of politicizing the issue by insisting on additional funds.  

“But I must say, while so far this legislation has moved forward on a strong bipartisan basis, there are some signals on the horizon that indicate some potential trouble,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Now, I hope I’m wrong, and I hope these signals on the horizon don’t prove to ultimately be true. But it does seem like this is part of a new political strategy.”  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled Monday that the GOP may not be open to allowing a vote on Shaheen’s amendment.  

“I ask colleagues to join us in working to pass this bipartisan authorization bill,” McConnell said in a floor speech. “We’ll also have opportunities through the appropriations process this spring to continue important funding just as we did last year.”  

Congress authorized $400 million for prevention and treatment in its year-end spending package, an increase of $100 million from 2015. A Senate Appropriations aide said none of the 2016 funds have been spent yet, as agencies are still working on their funding opportunity announcements.  

The conflict over funding threatens the bipartisan bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Leadership on both sides have been supportive of this bill, as states across the country have been affected by the crisis.  

“The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic does not discriminate by demographic or socio-economic status, by age or gender,” said McConnell. “It touches parents and children, neighbors and coworkers in all 50 states. It’s ending lives at record-breaking rates and it’s growing.”  

The bill’s main proponents said they will work this week to ensure its passage.  

“Certainly I’m happy to support amendments if they come to the floor,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told reporters Monday. “Either way I want to get this legislation passed.”  

Portman and Ayotte both face tough re-election fight, and on Friday the Ohio Democratic Party held a conference call, criticizing Portman for voting against last year’s omnibus spending, which included additional money to fight the epidemic.  

Portman said he believes more money should be spent, but cautioned that the Senate should focus on the bill at hand.  

“Personally I do support additional funding. I think it’s a priority. In other words I’d be willing to spend more on this issue, generally,” Portman told Roll Call. “But we have a bill here that everyone has agreed to. We spent three years getting it together. It’s a more effective way to spend the money, and it has broad support.”  

CARA would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to convene an inter-agency task force to develop best practices for prescribing pain medications. It authorize a series of grants, including incentivizing states, localities and nonprofits to expand educational efforts to prevent abuse and provide a treatment alternatives to incarceration. The bill would also provide authorization for the additional $100 million included in the year-end spending package to combat heroin and opioid abuse, and make it more likely that the programs would be funded in the future.

Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.

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