It was one day after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s announcement last week that the House would not consider the Senate bill to combat heroin and opioid abuse, a major issue on the 2016 campaign trail.
House GOP leaders quickly passed the mic to one of their most vulnerable incumbents, Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois.
The Republican lawmaker made the first GOP weekly radio address on opioid abuse since Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) became speaker.
“We can’t let politics get in the way of giving people a second chance at recovery,” Dold said in his address. “We’re doing all that we can to prevent overdoses and reduce addiction.”
Dold isn’t on any of the committees with jurisdiction over treatment, education, prevention or law enforcement efforts related to opioid abuse. It’s not even clear that Dold’s bill to improve and better regulate the distribution of such drugs, named after a constituent who died of an overdose, will be in the mix of measures that McCarthy (R-Calif.) said would be considered this month, with a goal of reaching the House floor by May.
GOP leaders seem to believe that giving Dold airtime on the issue — which has been a focus of the presidential campaign and may bleed into House and Senate contests — is smart politics. Yet some champions of painkiller legislation, including vulnerable Senate Republicans, beg to differ.
They fear the House may be foot-dragging on bipartisan Senate legislation in order to let members take a turn in the spotlight on a widely popular issue. But in the process, they worry, the House’s decision to start from scratch instead of picking up the popular Senate bill may upset a near-perfect opportunity to get something done.
For example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — also one of the most vulnerable members of his party this election cycle, and from one of the states hardest hit by drug-overdose deaths — is watching the calendar, and his frustration with the House is bubbling over.
There are only a few months this year to pass meaningful legislation before Congress effectively disbands for the election season. And it took years to craft and pass the Senate bill on opioid and heroin abuse that Portman co-authored with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). It survived a floor test last month not only mostly intact but with an almost unheard-of endorsement from the usually fractious body, passing by a vote of 94 to 1.
Portman and his colleagues point to the bipartisan support as the best argument for capitalizing on the moment for Congress to address the national opioid epidemic. But Portman questions whether House members speaking of urgency in their public comments are really committed to putting politics aside and getting a bill done.
Every extra moment they deliberate, Portman argues, they potentially waste time.
“The House must act, and they must act soon,” Portman said on the Senate floor last week, the same day McCarthy announced the House would go its own way on the issue. “I am not going to be patient on this. This is urgent, and people’s lives are at stake. . . . We need to take advantage of this opportunity that the Senate has given us by this huge vote.”
House GOP leaders said they plan to act quickly.
“It is not about politics, it is personal,” Ryan said on Wednesday. He added there is common ground between what the House is pursuing and the Senate legislation as well as with President Obama’s opioid initiatives.
“We can get this done and we can win this battle and that is why we here in the House are bringing our ideas to the table too, going through the committee process to meet with the Senate so that we can make sure that we actually advance a solution to this problem,” Ryan said.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) introduced companion legislation to Portman’s bill, but there are a host of other House measures on offer — to change approaches to treatment, to alter the attitude toward prescribing opioid painkillers, and to address illegal trafficking in addictive and illicit drugs, particularly synthetics.
The measures all have bipartisan support. But some members worry that with so many options on the table, the debate could start to lose focus, as members scramble to promote individual bills and local politics could take precedence.
A bill from Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) that would aim to improve treatment of opioid addiction is one that made leadership’s shortlist.
He’s a surgeon from a state that has seen one of the sharpest recent rises in the drug-overdose death rate, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he sits on the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee that is likely to field opioid legislation. Though Bucshon said he couldn’t care less whether he gets personal credit for his efforts, he worries the temptation to seize the spotlight may grip others and delay progress.
“Could there be pitfalls where for political reasons, people are bantering around and worried about who’s getting credit, and it stops it up? I’m a little worried about that because it’s a front-page issue and everybody’s talking about it,” Bucshon said, declining to name parties or names of who might pose a problem.
“It doesn’t do us any good to be working on legislation that’s ultimately not going to end up on the president’s desk,” he added.
Bucshon isn’t particularly vulnerable in 2016, and neither is Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who authored one of the synthetic-drug bills on McCarthy’s list that is now getting rolled into the House’s opioid strategy.
Dent doesn’t particularly care how synthetics are addressed — whether in House- or Senate-generated legislation. But it would be awkward, he said, to go home to his district, where synthetic-drug abuse is just as big a problem as opioid use, and have nothing to show for that crisis.
There are some House Republicans voicing complaints about the Senate legislation. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who said the opioid crisis had become “very personal” after her years working in the legal system and witnessing the worsening crisis in Indiana, authored a bill setting up a federal task force to come up with best practices for reducing opioid prescriptions.
She said the Senate bill is flawed because it relies too much on grant programs and is difficult to find a way to pay for, while the House, she expected, would produce something with fewer grant-based initiatives.
“There are certainly a lot of ways to tackle the problem without adding a lot of new grant programs,” Brooks said.
That criticism might not sit so well with senators such as Portman and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who not only helped design those grant programs but also bucked their party to support $600 million in emergency spending to fund them.
Kelsey Snell contributed to this story.