Bill To Combat America’s Drug Addiction Crisis Sprints Through The Senate

CREDIT: AP Photo, J. Scott Applewhite

From left, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., hold a news conference after the Senate approved legislation reinforcing efforts against heroin and the abuse of opioid painkillers.

The country’s growing heroin epidemic has delivered a novel concept to the Senate floor: harmony. On Thursday, a bipartisan bill that would jump-start national drug addiction programs cleared the Senate with an overwhelming 94-1 vote.

“This is a strong signal that the United States Congress now gets this issue,” said Rob Portman (R-OH) in a news conference shortly after the vote. Portman and fellow Republican Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) had spent weeks prior to the vote campaigning for support among GOP Senators.

The legislation comes at addiction from all sides, with increased funding for addiction recovery programs, increased availability of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and a crackdown on doctors who over-prescribe opiate-based medication. As an issue that’s been prioritized by President Obama, as well as his potential successors on both sides of the ticket, the measure should in theory have little problem passing through the House of Representatives and sailing on to the Oval Office.

But it may not be as easy. Concerned by the weak support of the House companion bill by conservative representatives, GOP senators stepped in to round up the votes. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s staffers said he’s “encouraged” by the bill, but Ryan has yet to outright support it. And while the bill passed swiftly through the Senate, it wasn’t an entirely smooth ride.

Democratic senators had hoped their amendment to the major bill — one that would direct an additional $600 million towards the expanded programs — would be swept into the bipartisan vote.

But only five Republicans (including Portman and Ayotte) backed the funding. Despite their concerns that the legislation would be difficult to see through without a substantial budget, Democratic Senators said too important to drag down with a funding fight. At least, for now.

“Obviously I’m disappointed, because as I travel around New Hampshire, what I hear from people is that what they most need are resources,” said Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “But I think the underlying bill is important, and we should pass it even if we can’t, at this point, get those resources.”

Other Democrats aren’t as confident. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told the New York Times that “by itself, [the bill] won’t get us over the finish line” without the needed funds. These funds could potentially come from Obama’s February request for $1.1 billion in funding to fight addiction, but there’s equal uncertainty whether conservative members of Congress will shell out the funds.

“I hope that the Republican leadership will honor their statements and commitments,” said Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) following the vote.