Senate Democrats on Wednesday lost a bid to add $600 million to a bill to combat heroin and prescription drug abuse, but said they won’t block the legislation over the funding fight.
Democrats argued the extra spending is vital to ensure there would be enough money to put a real dent in the country’s growing substance abuse epidemic through new opioid abuse programs created by the bill. But party leaders shied away from trying to secure the spending by leveraging their ability to stall the legislation — a popular measure that addresses a crisis widely discussed on the presidential campaign trail.
“There certainly is no desire to take the bill down over that through the caucus at large,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), an author of legislation. “If somebody’s so mad about that that they just can’t bring themselves to vote for it, that will be their personal decision.”
The amendment to add the spending failed on a 48 to 47 vote with 60 votes needed to overcome a point of order raised against the proposal. Five Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the additional funds. Presidential candidates Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were not present for the vote.
Republican leaders argued there is enough funding in place to get the programs up and running and any additional money should be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
“It just seems ill-advised, to say the least, to appropriate more money when in fact there’s already $571 million available to deal with this epidemic,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on Tuesday.
The bill would set up new programs to provide treatment for opioid drug addiction and to reduce deaths from overdoses.
The decision by Democratic leaders not to block the bill is a sign of how important addressing the nation’s worsening opioid abuse epidemic has become for many members of Congress.
Democrats recently blocked progress on an energy bill due to an impasse over similar emergency funds to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich. That dispute has kept the Senate from finishing up its work on the legislation.
Concerns about opioid abuse have been on full display during the presidential campaign with candidates speaking candidly on the stump about family members who struggled with addiction. This was particularly true in the weeks ahead of the New Hampshire primary — a state where heroin addiction has become a problem.
Passing opioid legislation swiftly is politically important for several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The drug abuse crisis has gripped political battleground states like New Hampshire and Ohio, where Democrats are hoping to make gains in Senate races. The Republican senators up for election in those states, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) voted in favor of the amendment to add $600 million. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also voted for the additional funding.
A final vote on the legislation could happen as early as this week.
The issue of the additional funding is unlikely to go away, as Democrats argue the drug crisis cannot be fully addressed without additional funds.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) led the effort to secure the $600 million to support grant programs for education and treatment for opioid abuse, as well as to provide incentives for states to approve the wider use of naloxone, a drug used as an antidote for overdoses.
Shaheen said after Wednesday’s vote that she would continue to fight “until we get the resources that families and communities need” to combat opioid abuse.
She dismissed Cornyn’s argument that the year-end spending package enacted in December, the so-called omnibus, provides enough money to start funding the programs the bill would create.
“The omnibus shouldn’t be used as an excuse for Congress to ignore the immediate need for resources in New Hampshire and across the country,” Shaheen said.
Some Democrats also questioned the amount Cornyn said is available.
“Show me the money,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), pointing out that appropriations made months ago couldn’t possibly cover new programs that Congress had yet to vote on. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. We want to make sure this is paid for and not just a campaign stunt.”