The Senate on Thursday passed legislation to combat the growing epidemic of painkiller and heroin abuse, teeing up an accomplishment many members will take straight to the campaign trail.
Drug abuse has been in the spotlight this political season, with presidential candidates recalling personal stories about relatives and friends who struggled with addiction and lawmakers from states dealing with the crisis highlighting their efforts to address the problem legislatively.
Many of the Republican senators who have most vocally backed the bill face tough re-election battles.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for instance, have taken a lead role in the debate and have emphasized how critical the bill’s programs will be in their states, which face heroin and painkiller, or opioid, abuse problems. In New Hampshire, more than a person a day dies of a heroin or opioid overdose and in Ohio, it’s nearly one death every three hours.
Both Ayotte and Portman supported a Democratic-led, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort last week to add $600 million to the bill to support the treatment and prevention programs it would create. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is also facing a formidable election challenge, supported the amendment as well. Republicans leaders opposed the proposal arguing there is enough money for the programs already and any additional funding should be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Senators are now eyeing the appropriations process as the next place they intend to appeal for more drug abuse treatment and prevention funding.
The bill, which was passed on a 94 to 1 vote, has emerged as one of the few pieces of legislation to have wide bipartisan support during this election year, as the country’s problem with opioid abuse worsens. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) was the lone vote against the bill. Presidential candidates Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) missed the vote as did Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is receiving treatment for breast cancer, also missed the vote.
The legislation would establish grant programs to help state and local governments improve education and treatment for drug abuse, encourage medical providers to reduce unnecessary prescriptions, commit resources to help veterans deal with addiction, and give local law enforcement and mental health officials tools to lower the death rate from overdoses.
A key provision would provide states with incentives to make naloxone, which can counteract overdoses, more widely available by offering liability protections to officials who distribute it.
The bill’s fate in the House remains unclear.
“Our committees will be reviewing the legislation,” said Mike Long, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “Additionally, there a number of House members who have been working on this issue given the impact it has had on their districts and constituents.”
Senators on Thursday pressed the House to move quickly.
“I don’t know of a single specific objection on the House side, and they’d be very hard-pressed to find one,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who co-authored the bill with Portman, told reporters. The overwhelming Senate vote in favor of the bill, he added, should quell any fears in the House about being criticized for supporting the measure.