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Senate rejects additional spending to address opioid epidemic

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday defeated an effort to set aside $600 million in emergency funds to address the nationwide opioid epidemic, with top Republicans arguing that the extra money wasn’t needed because lawmakers had addressed the issue in an earlier spending bill.

The measure was doomed in a 48-47 procedural vote. Under the Senate’s rules, the funding amendment needed the support of 60 senators to move forward.

That didn’t happen because Republicans portrayed the emergency funding measure as an unnecessary and controversial add-on to a bipartisan drug policy bill that’s otherwise expected to pass the Senate in the coming days.

“Congress has already appropriated $400 million to opioid-specific programs,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor. “All $400 million of those funds remain available to be spent today.”

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who is among the strongest supporters of adding $600 million to the federal anti-heroin effort, said the existing funds were inadequate to address a nationwide crisis.

“It’s plain and simple: Either you’re for expanding access and funding for naloxone to prevent overdose deaths, along with other life-saving measures, or you’re against it,” Schumer said, referring to the antidote also known as Narcan. “It is clear some in the Senate are against it and are only willing to talk the talk and not walk the walk about fighting the heroin and opioid drug crisis.”

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The amendment, introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., would have set aside $300 million in funding for grants to local agencies that work with addicts and on prevention, along with $230 million for law enforcement and $70 million on other programs.

Shaheen had one Republican partner in her effort – Sen. Kelly Ayotte, also of New Hampshire – but other Republicans objected to several provisions of the funding amendment.

Most notably, it called for emergency funding, which, under federal rules, doesn’t have to be immediately paid for through additional taxes or cuts in other programs. In other words, it would have been added to the federal deficit.

And that sort of move would have added a dash of partisan controversy to the underlying bill that the amendment was to be attached to: the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a fast-moving measure that aims to refocus federal anti-drug efforts on prevention rather than punishment while setting up an interagency task force to develop new policies governing prescription opioids.

“The reason we’ve been able to move this bill forward so far, and it passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee just two weeks ago, is because it reflects bipartisan input as well as bipartisan concern with this epidemic,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Before debate on the Shaheen amendment, Cornyn said he was concerned that amendments that were not bipartisan in nature could cause “potential trouble” with the underlying bill.

Nevertheless, Democrats pushed hard for the extra funding, saying the nation can’t wait until fiscal 2017 – which starts in October – for another infusion of anti-drug money.

President Obama has proposed $1.1 billion in additional anti-drug funding in his budget for that coming fiscal year, but Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other Democrats pushed for more money now.

Schumer, who called for the extra spending on a trip to Buffalo two weeks ago, said senators who rejected the extra funding had made a huge error.

“When it came time to put their money where their mouth is and provide resources to those on the front line, not everyone was willing to make the full commitment,” Schumer said.

“By opposing this emergency funding, the Senate has basically prevented law enforcement and medical professionals from doing the work they need to do to beat back this scourge.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com