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Lawmakers Who've Led on Heroin Epidemic Get Hit on It Anyway

From left, Ayotte, Shaheen, Portman and Gov. Peter Shumlin testify at a Judiciary hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The mood in the Senate hearing room Wednesday morning was somber as lawmakers pledged bipartisan support to combat the scourge of heroin and prescription drug addiction. But with two of the Senate's most vulnerable Republicans testifying, the hearing offered the opportunity to demonstrate some passion for an issue voters care about intensely. It also gave Democratic opponents a chance to criticize them.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has been working for years to combat the drug crisis as his state has been one of the hardest-hit. At the Judiciary hearing, he urged his colleagues to support his legislation to combat the epidemic. “I truly believe it can make a difference in the lives of the people I represent,” he said.  

While the hearing was still going on, the Ohio Democratic Party sent out a press release accusing Portman of "D.C. double speak," on the issue, noting he voted against the year-end spending package that included additional funds for drug programs.

“Not only has Rob Portman voted to slash funding for substance abuse programs, he tried to take credit for drug abuse treatment programs that he actually voted against," Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Daniel van Hoogstraten said.

“I think it’s really sad. Really sad," Portman said of that statement. "This has been totally bipartisan from the start. I’ve been working on this issue for over two decades, and I’ve never been attacked politically on it. It’s kind of absurd.”

In Wednesday a conference call, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who testified at the hearing and is also facing a tough re-election bid, said, "We rose above politics today, and we’re going to continue to when it comes to addressing this opiate crisis."

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party also used the hearing as an opportunity to take a swing at GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, who didn't testify with the other senators. Democrats asserted that Toomey, who is facing re-election "may portray himself as sympathetic to this issue when he’s up for re-election, [but] his record tells a different story."

Toomey's campaign spokesman Steve Kelly pointed out that Democrats have praised Toomey's work on this issue. "Toomey has repeatedly stated that the scourge of opioid abuse should not be a partisan issue," Kelly said, "so it's disappointing that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party is attempting to politicize such an important public health crisis."

Hosting or testifying at a congressional hearing is one of the perks of incumbency, demonstrating to voters back home that a particular lawmaker has a way to influence key issues. That is not to say that these members don't have genuine concerns about a given topic, but rather that the hearings provide a convenient way to demonstrate those concerns both to voters and key advocates. A week ago, another Senate panel highlighted another political issue: gun rights.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., held the first congressional hearing on President Barack Obama's executive actions to combat gun violence , and questioned Attorney General Loretta Lynch on their legality. Shelby, who first came to the Senate in 1987,  faces four primary challengers who hope to ride the anti-establishment wave to victory this year.  

One notable witness at Shelby's hearing was Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general whose law firm focuses on self defense and firearm protections, and who also heads the Senate Conservatives Fund. In 2014, the group backed some primary challengers to high-profile incumbents, including Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.  

Cuccinelli told reporters after the hearing that the group hadn't decided to weigh in on Shelby's primary campaign, only noting, "We're just watching right now.”  

Shelby said the hearing was not politically motivated. “I’m a long time advocate of the Second Amendment rights, like all constitutional rights," Shelby said the next day. "It has nothing to do with my primary."  

Due to Senate rules, footage of Shelby questioning Lynch on the stand cannot be used in a campaign video. But, as one strategist pointed out, highlighting his power as a senior member could help combat challengers who claim that Alabama needs a new senator.  

“The message of all those individuals is Washington is broken, insiders and career politicians are harming our country,” said Brent Buchanan, a GOP consultant based in Alabama. “I think that has more to do with [Shelby's] decision-making”  

Two days before the hearing, Shelby toured a firearms manufacturing plant with Chris Cox, the head of the political arm of the National Rifle Association, which recently endorsed Shelby.  

“All things in Washington are politics," Buchanan said of the timing of the events and the hearing, "usually related to electoral politics."  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.   Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc  Related: Senate Leaders Look Ahead to 2016 See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.

Topics: 2016 poli