President Barack Obama on Tuesday will headline a major summit on prescription drug and heroin abuse organized by a powerful House Republican who is trying to convince the party to fund the president's ambitious plan to fight the nationwide epidemic.
With Republicans raising concerns about what kinds of initiatives Washington should be funding, Obama is expected to devote some of his remarks in Atlanta to press them to act. And, conveniently for Obama, one of the event’s organizers is a lawmaker who helps control the federal pocketbook: House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. The president also is expected to announce a set of administrative actions that will not require congressional approval. A major thrust of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats has been to use federal dollars to help expand treatment for most vulnerable populations.
Expect Obama to reiterate themes he has turned to before when pushing for congressional action as the House returns from a recess period with a Senate-passed anti-opioid bill awaiting its action. Obama could use Rogers’ conference to continue a plea for bipartisanship on the issue that made it into his final State of the Union address.
“I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse,” the president said in January. “We just might surprise the cynics again.”
Obama in February asked Congress to spend $1.1 billion next fiscal year to help the federal and state governments fight addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.
“Opioid abuse and overdoses have hurt families from across this nation,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told reporters in February. “My home state of West Virginia has felt the cost almost more than any other.”
Opioids, a category that includes prescription painkillers and heroin, contributed to nearly 29,000 deaths in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 10,500 fatalities that year stemmed specifically to heroin use, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
In the audience Tuesday will be individuals who are recovering from opioid and heroin abuse and some of their family members, as well as medical and law enforcement officials. The White House will hope that backdrop will help spur House Republicans to send the Senate a revised version of its bill that can produce a final bill Obama would sign.
The Senate earlier this month passed a bill that would authorize grants to states to expand their treatment programs and increase access to naloxone, an overdose prevention drug.
That legislation, which passed 94-1, also would give the Justice Department additional tools to combat drug trafficking. Obama’s State of the Union comments came in late January, and the Senate nearly unanimously passed a measure in mid-March. That’s rocket speed in an era marked by dysfunction and a paucity of bipartisan legislation.
Still, partisan squabbling could sink the Senate’s measure. So, too, could a truncated election-year legislative calendar.
For instance, the bill does not contain $600 million in emergency funds Senate Democrats tried to tack on.
Republicans blocked those attempts, arguing a fiscal 2016 tax and spending measure passed in December included $400 million to fight the heroin and opioid epidemic. Senior GOP members noted in recent weeks that additional funding will come later this year when Congress takes up fiscal 2017 spending bills.
The House is expected to take up the Senate-passed bill in the coming weeks, and Democrats in that chamber are expected to revive the push for the emergency funds.
“I hope that the Republican leadership, as we move through the appropriations process, will honor some of the statements and commitments that they made on the floor about making sure that [the bill] does indeed have robust funding,” one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told reporters.
Still, other largely partisan differences could complicate passage of any House-altered version of the Senate’s bill.
That’s because Republicans and Democrats agree that the country’s opioid drug abuse epidemic affects most states and districts, but a House hearing just before the recess period began exposed partisan rifts over key factors driving the addiction epidemic problem.
Democrats largely link the uptick in prescription painkiller-related deaths to a lack of access to treatment and drugs designed to prevent overdoses. But House Oversight and Government Reform Republicans see the root problems as subpar efforts to stop drug traffickers, laws making marijuana illegal, and fewer drug-related prosecutions.
Whether there is time for the House to make substantial changes to the Senate measure, complete negotiations on a compromise and get it to Obama’s desk is unclear. Lawmakers will take an extended August recess this year, then adjourn for much of the fall to return to the campaign trail.