The Senate gave final passage Wednesday to legislation that will help communities combat opioid and heroin abuse and, in the process, gave a boost to some lawmakers facing tough re-election bids.
"This is a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress has passed comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever supported long-term addiction recovery," Sen. Rob Portman said after the final vote.
Like he had done on numerous occasions previously, Portman took the floor Wednesday to push for passage of legislation designed to combat what's become a scourge across his home state of Ohio and elsewhere in the country.
The bill's passage delivers grant programs — though not much money — for addressing the epidemic that has led to overdoses and crime in communities nationwide. It also gives the bill's co-sponsors, Portman and New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, an important bipartisan win as they leave for a seven-week recess.
"This is a very strong bipartisan bill that we've worked on for over two years," Ayotte said. "I've fought very hard."
Both she and Portman are considered among the more vulnerable Republicans as Democrats try to reclaim control of the Senate this November. Yet for the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, they worked closely with Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
"It's been a long, constructive process," Whitehouse said.
Like other Democrats, Whitehouse lamented the decision by Republican leadership not to attach $600 million in emergency funds to address the crisis directly. Republicans argue additional funds are already being provided through the regular appropriations process.
"We do need funding to make CARA work. There are whole sections of it that are completely unfunded under the current appropriations bills that are pending," Whitehouse said. "And I hope that they can convince the Republican leadership not just to pass their bill but to actually put money around it so that real life families can get real life access to it."
That was the crux of a letter from a group of Senate Democrats led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., released Wednesday, as well as floor speeches by Sen. Charles E. Schumer and other Democrats.
"The American people have called on the Senate to do its job and pass emergency funding for opioid use disorder prevention and treatment services," said the letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We stand ready to act when you are."
Ayotte said she supports additional dollars. "I've supported Senator Shaheen's efforts on emergency funding," she said. "I'll continue to push the appropriations committee to increase funding even more."
Authorization measures like CARA generally do not include such direct funding, which is left to the appropriations process, and Republican advocates say they will continue to work toward increased funding in spending bills. Some of that money has already been allocated.
"Rob supports more funding, and voted for the Shaheen plan," said Kevin Smith, a Portman spokesman. "But funding alone won’t solve this problem, and that’s why we need these CARA policy reforms to ensure that federal resources are directed to prevention, treatment, and recovery programs that work."
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest affirmed that President Barack Obama will sign the bill, despite sharing the concerns of Democrats about future funding.
"While the president will sign this bill once it reaches his desk because some action is better than none, he won’t stop fighting to secure the resources this public health crisis demands," Earnest said. "Congressional Republicans have not done their jobs until they provide the funding for treatment that communities need to combat this epidemic."