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Opioid bill clears Congress, despite ongoing funding fight

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), seen here in a file photo, has been a leading advocate of the bill, which he has made a central part of his re-election campaign. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Congress on Wednesday voted to send the president a bill intended to improve heroin and painkiller addiction treatment, despite Democrats’ charge that the measure is a paper tiger being sent in to fight a worsening epidemic.

The legislation has become an important part of several tough election battles in states like Ohio and New Hampshire, where opioid addiction has been a particularly acute problem, and Republican leaders were eager to clear the bill before Congress heads home at the end of the week for an almost two month break.

“At a time when drug overdoses claim 129 American lives every day, it’s painfully clear that we need to do more now,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Wednesday.

While Democrats supported the measure, they argued it needs to be accompanied by additional funding or else it will be ineffective.

Twenty Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter Wednesday to McConnell insisting he schedule a vote soon to approve additional spending to combat opioid abuse.

“The opioid legislation has no real funding to solve the real problem,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday morning.

Despite these concerns, the opioids measure passed the Senate by an overwhelming vote of 92 to 2. Last week, the House approved the same legislation on a 407 to 5 vote.

The White House said the president will sign the bill despite concerns over its lack of funding.

“The Administration has consistently said that turning the tide of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic requires real resources to help those Americans seeking treatment get the care that they need,” the White said in a statement.”Congressional Republicans have not done their jobs until they provide the funding for treatment that communities need to combat this epidemic. The President and Administration officials will continue to press Republicans to respond to this crisis.”

The measure sets up a state grant program to improve education and treatment resources for heroin and painkiller abuse, as well as outfit more first responders with anti-overdose drugs like naloxone.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have been campaigning on the potential of the legislation, presenting it to voters as a significant step toward taming the opioid epidemic in their states.

“This is urgent, more urgent I think than any other issue we’re dealing with. Nine out of 10 of those struggling with addiction are not getting the treatment that they need,” Portman said during a floor speech last week. “I think if this were the case of any other disease, it would be viewed as a national scandal. It’s wrong and it’s unacceptable. Addiction is a disease and one of the underlying tenets of this whole legislation is to acknowledge that.”

Portman and Ayotte are also stressing their willingness to work across the aisle to put more funding toward combating overdoses and preventing drug abuse.

Both were among a handful of Senate Republicans who backed legislation, which was rejected, from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) this spring to put an extra $600 million of funding into the bill.

House and Senate negotiators later rejected a Democrat-backed proposal to add an extra $920 million of addiction treatment dollars to the measure. Republicans argued that the legislation’s existing funding is already dramatically more than the federal government has ever committed to fighting this sort of drug abuse and said they will return to the matter when considering spending bills later this year.

But Democrats aren’t buying it.

They put the opioid bill in the same category as ongoing battles over funding to combat the Zika virus and address the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

“Forgive me for being skeptical that they will actually follow through on that,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor Wednesday of the GOP’s promises to revisit opioid funding later. “What a sham.”