POLITICS

Republicans Are Going At Each Other Over A Stalled Heroin Bill

"I hope that the talk of hearings and markups isn’t an excuse to delay action," Sen. Rob Portman said in a warning to his House colleagues.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) says the Senate has "already done the hard part" when it comes to heroin legislation.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) says the Senate has "already done the hard part" when it comes to heroin legislation.

UPDATE: April 13 -- Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) took to the Senate floor again on Wednesday to drag the House for stalling on the Senate's heroin bill.

"The Senate passed this bill on March 10, so it has now been 32 days since the Senate passed it," Portman said. "Every day, we lose about 120 Americans to drug overdoses. That means that we’ve lost more than 3,840 Americans since the Senate passed this bill. Nationally, from 2000 to 2014, the rate of overdose deaths doubled, leaving nearly half a million Americans dead from drug overdoses."

Portman noted that despite some promising chatter from the lower chamber, nothing seemed to be happening.

"I know that the House Majority Leader said that he wants the House to take on the drug epidemic and pass legislation sometime this month. I appreciate that. I watched the weekly Republican address by Congressman Bob Dold of Illinois. It is clear to me that he is passionate about this issue, and I appreciate his advocacy on behalf of those who need help," he said. "However, I notice that there were no hearings or markups this week, and none are currently scheduled. I hope that changes."

PREVIOUSLY: 

WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio took the floor of the upper chamber Thursday to put pressure on his House colleagues, condemning inaction that has left the Senate's sweeping heroin legislation to languish. 

Portman's address was likely sparked by an op-ed published by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a local paper on Thursday. McCarthy's piece strikes the right notes in describing the historic nature of the opioid epidemic, but then veers off track, suggesting that the House's approach will be to take up and vote on a series of bills being quickly worked up by House Republicans. Law enforcement agencies, health care providers and advocates for the addiction community have spent the last three years working with Portman and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed on March 10 by a 94-1 vote. 

That CARA is largely ignored in McCarthy's op-ed, even though it has 113 bipartisan House co-sponsors, seems to have driven Portman to the Senate floor.

"I hope that the talk of hearings and markups isn’t an excuse to delay action," Portman said. "Because, let me just say to my friends in the House, respectfully, the Senate has made your job a lot easier. We have already done the hard part."

"We didn’t just say that we had all the right answers," he continued. "No, we took the time to listen. We conducted three years of fact-finding on this bill. We consulted with experts, with doctors, with law enforcement, with patients in recovery, and with the drug experts in the Obama administration, such as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. We brought in people from Ohio, my home state, and from all over the country."

Mike Long, a spokesman for McCarthy, said that the House does still plan to debate CARA, amend it in committee and vote on it in the future on the House floor, which would set up a conference committee between the two chambers. But it will also move forward with individual House bills.

"There are a number of House Members who have been working on this issue for years given the impact it has had on their districts and constituents. Our leadership has been working with the committees of jurisdiction to schedule these bills for the floor since the beginning of the year," Long said. "Additionally, our committees are reviewing the Senate passed bill while also continuing their work on bills addressing the epidemic. Our goal is to move legislation this spring and work toward a conference with the Senate and in order for the president to sign legislation into law."

It's at least the second time that the congressional obstacle course has gotten in the way of legislation addressing the epidemic. Important measures were left out of CARA because it was passed through the Judiciary Committee rather than the health committee. A piece of legislation allowing doctors to treat up to 500 patients with addiction medication -- an increase from the current cap of 100 -- was left out of CARA, Portman said, because it fell under the jurisdiction of the wrong committee, which wanted to deal with it separately. (HHS has since proposed rules to lift the cap to 200.)

Portman is close with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and previously told The Huffington Post that he has been pressing for action. "I will say this: The House must act, and soon. I’m not going to be patient on this. This is urgent. This is a crisis.  And people’s lives are at stake," he said, noting that 120 people are dying every day as the House strikes out on its own.

Portman, in a previous interview with HuffPost, said he worried that his House colleagues would drift to where Republicans are most comfortable on drug policy: enforcement, interdiction and incarceration. And, true to form, much of the legislation McCarthy mentioned in his op-ed takes a supply-side approach, which does nothing for those already addicted.

After mentioning treatment, prevention and education, McCarthy adds, "However, we cannot forget that so many of these problems stem not only from abuse, but from the illicit drug trade as well. Unfortunately, today we are consistently a step behind in stopping trafficking of opioids and other illegal drugs, but Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) are working on bills to improve operation of our drug laws."

McCarthy's passing reference to the Senate bill only mentions the Republican co-sponsors, the type of partisan approach Portman and most Senate Democrats eschewed, which enabled the chamber to get the near unanimous vote. 

"What do we say to the 40 million Americans struggling with addiction when they ask why we’re waiting?" Portman said Thursday. "How do we explain to them that, even with this consensus of support for CARA, they have to wait?"

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