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Sponsors of Mental Health Bills Look for Way Forward

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Begich said he’s going to work to advance a piece of mental health legislation. His bill was one of several incorporated into the Senate gun package.

The decision to tie mental health legislation to the Senate gun package that was pulled from the floor last month has left supporters of those provisions in limbo.

Without a firm timeline in place for returning to the gun measure, senators who have introduced mental health proposals have to decide how long they’ll wait before attempting to move their bills forward separately. And for some, the end of that waiting period is approaching.

“We think it’s a very important part, with or without a full package,” said Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, referring to legislation he has introduced on mental health first-aid training (S 153). “So we’re giving it a little breathing room, but then we’re going to move forward.”

Like gun control and school safety, mental health received renewed attention after the December elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. President Barack Obama included mental health provisions in his plan to reduce gun violence, and lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have honed in on the issue with bipartisan support.

Begich’s bill, for example, was one of several measures that was incorporated into mental health legislation (S 689) approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month, which won inclusion in the gun package (S 649) by a vote of 95-2.

But Senate leaders on mental health do not see the gun measure as the only path forward for their priorities, particularly now that the chamber has turned away from the package.

Begich said he’s going to start asking to move his legislation forward in some format, emphasizing the bill’s support across the political spectrum. He doesn’t think any senators would object to the measure, but he says they will need to test that over the next few weeks.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the HELP Committee, is also eager to advance the larger package that he co-sponsored with Chairman Tom Harkin. An aide said Alexander would like to see it “move forward as quickly as possible because it will help parents, teachers, communities, and individuals with mental illness find better treatment and improve awareness to ensure people get the care they need.”

“There’s no reason to wait for another piece of legislation to move it forward,” the aide added.

Harkin spokeswoman Allison Preiss said the Iowa Democrat “will continue to work with Senate leadership to advance this important proposal.”

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