WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate last week took up a bill to respond to what Democrats and Republicans are calling an epidemic of opioid and heroin overdoses in the country but once again ran into a major difference over funding.
With solid support from senators from both parties, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act would boost education and awareness about prescription opioid abuse, increase the availability of medication-assisted treatment, provide training and equipment to first responders on the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, and support emergency services in rural areas.
Senators took turns coming to the floor to share sometimes tragic stories from their own states.
One often-repeated statistic came to symbolize how serious the crisis has become at least in some areas of the country.
“More people are dying from drug overdoses than car crashes in the Commonwealth,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said while speaking of the growing toll in his state.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said 47,000 Americans died from lethal drug overdoses in 2014.
“Health workers are being overwhelmed,” she said.
Shaheen introduced an amendment to authorize $600 million in emergency funding to law enforcement and treatment providers across the country to help combat the problem.
McConnell questioned the need for the additional funding.
He reminded senators that Congress already has provided $400 million that is still available for opioid-specific programs.
“We’ll have more opportunities for funding through the appropriations process,” McConnell said.
Requiring a supermajority of 60 votes for passage, Shaheen’s amendment was rejected in a vote of 48 to 47.
Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller opposed the amendment; Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada did not vote.
More votes are scheduled on the bill in the coming days.
Veto threat defied
The House defied a veto threat from the Obama administration and approved a bill supporters say is necessary to protect the brick industry from having to spend millions of dollars to comply with federal mandates that are under judicial review.
Introduced by Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, the Blocking Regulator Interference from Closing Kilns (BRICK) Act passed on a 238-163 vote.
It would delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Brick MACT” rule on limiting mercury and other hazardous air pollution until all litigation on the rule has been completed.
Johnson argued that it makes no sense to force companies to comply with a costly rule while court decisions are pending.
“The majority of U.S. brick plants are small, family-owned operations, often located in small communities that depend on the plant for good-paying jobs,” Johnson said.
“However, to comply with EPA requirements, these small businesses will be forced to borrow millions of dollars to pay for the required control equipment.”
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said Johnson’s bill is not only unnecessary but would set a terrible precedent.
Courts already have the ability to grant a stay on the rule but have not been requested to do so by those in the industry that have filed legal actions against it, he said.
If the bill becomes law, Rush warned, it would take such rulemaking out of the process provided by the Clean Air Act, which has led to improvements in air quality.
“We would end up in a situation where we would never, ever control air polluting emissions,” Rush said.
In its statement explaining why a veto would be recommended if the bill ever arrives on the president’s desk, the administration said the bill would threaten Americans’ health by indefinitely extending deadlines for the industry to limit hazardous air pollution.
Nevada Republicans Mark Amodei, Cresent Hardy and Joe Heck voted for the bill while Democrat Dina Titus opposed it.
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