Two Critical Republican Senators Just Balked at a Major Opioid Funding Bill

Congressional Democrats want $45 billion for the epidemic. The Trump administration is open to it. But GOP lawmakers aren’t yet on board.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Republican lawmakers are not yet ready to embrace a legislative push for additional funding to combat the opioid epidemic, despite the Trump administration signalling it would be open to such a measure.

Last week, President Donald Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a public health emergency. His announcement notably did not call for additional funds to help combat the epidemic but in the subsequent days, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that $45 billion—the amount of money lawmakers had previously set aside to deal with the crisis—“would have been a good number.”

Since Trump’s announcement, a group of Democratic senators and one independent have introduced the Combating the Opioid Epidemic Act, which would allocate $45 billion in additional resources to state governments through programs that are already in place. And on Tuesday, one of those senators, Bob Casey (D-PA), called on Trump to formally endorse the measure.

“[Opioid abuse] is straining the resources of local government, law enforcement and public health agencies,” Casey wrote Tuesday in a letter to Trump that was obtained by The Daily Beast. “I applaud your attention to this issue, but a stable, long-term investment in prevention, treatment, recovery and research is needed.”

Despite the administration’s signals, however, GOP lawmakers don’t appear ready to back the Democratic proposal—at least not until they see the fine print.

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the Ohio lawmaker “will continue to support more funding to combat this epidemic,” short of officially signing into Casey’s bill.

Portman had played an instrumental role in past attempts to secure opioid-related funding. When the Senate was considering the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA)—one of its Obamacare repeal and replace bills—he worked with leadership to secure $45 billion in funds to help lessen the blow that would have resulted from the legislation’s Medicaid cuts.

Fighting alongside Portman for the extra funding was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), whose state has been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic. In an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Capito said “more money” for the opioid epidemic is needed. But she did not back the Casey bill in its current form.

“I think at this point we’re going to work through the appropriations process and also work with the president’s new [public] health emergency declaration to see where and if what funds could go in there,” Capito said. “I’m in favor of more funding and $45 billion was a good number we came up with.”

The reluctance of Portman and Capito to join Casey’s legislative effort further complicates congressional attempts to address a crisis that virtually everyone—from issue experts to advocates to politicians—has said demands urgent attention. Nearly 100 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the addiction scourge is worsening.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree that a robust federal response is necessary. But they disagree on precisely what that response should entail.

Trump’s declaration aims to loosen some regulations on treatments, establish federal drug

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courts nationwide, and encourage a “just-say-no” approach to drugs. Democrats, and many experts in the field, found it to be insufficient.

“Today’s declaration is a total hollow promise when the administration is spending its time trying to gut the services that help those struggling with addiction,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said at the time.

Murphy is a co-sponsor of the Senate Democratic bill, which Republicans have privately derided as more of a political statement than a good-faith legislative effort, citing a lack of outreach made to GOP lawmakers. John Rizzo, a spokesman for Casey, pushed back on that assertion, telling The Daily Beast that the Pennsylvania senator has done “initial outreach” to Senate Republicans. Casey’s letter to Trump on Tuesday is a part of that effort, Rizzo said.

Democrats pushing for additional funding are hopeful that the White House’s support, even if it is short of a formal endorsement, will help move the bill forward.

Sanders noted that the $45 billion “was originally in the health care plan that the president supported” but failed to muster enough support among Senate Republicans. Therefore, she added, “we’re hoping that Congress will come together and there will be a lot of bipartisan support to put behind the opioid crisis and join the president in dealing with this effort.”