Dems’ opioid bill funding feud moves to finish line

Dems’ opioid bill funding feud moves to finish line
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Democrats are on the verge of conceding their yearslong battle for the GOP to commit more money to fighting the nation’s opioid epidemic.

As Republican leaders pushed their signature opioids package to the finish line this week, both the White House and congressional Democrats intensified their criticism. As recently as Tuesday, key Democrats were lined up to reject the bill without more money for treatment. 

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But that wall of opposition began to crumble on Wednesday, as it became clear Republicans would press forward without any of the $920 million in funding proposed by Democrats. The House is now planning to vote on the bill Friday, with a vote to come shortly afterward in the Senate. 

Democrats are still publicly fuming about the GOP’s decision not to boost funding for treatment. But the party is now notably noncommittal on whether members are willing to vote down the other anti-addiction measures included in the bill just to deprive the GOP of a campaign win. 

Minutes after Republicans unanimously decided against new funding at Wednesday’s hearing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest gave an emotional rebuke of the GOP’s approach. He called it “woefully short of Congress’s basic responsibility.”

But when asked if the president would veto the bill, he said only that he “cannot promise” the president would sign it, stopping short of a full veto threat. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBarr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks Harry Reid warns Trump 'can be reelected' Homeland Security Republican accuses Navy of withholding UFO info MORE (D-Nev.) also stopped short of promising to block the bill.

Reid denounced Republicans on Wednesday for trying to do opioid legislation “on the cheap,” but did not vow to vote against the measure. He said he would speak to other senators, adding, “We’ll make a decision when we have to.”

The dozen or so Democrats involved with the bicameral opioids negotiations say they will likely refuse to sign their committee’s conference report.

But that doesn’t mean they would oppose the bill on the floor, according to one of those members, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.).

“Certainly, not supporting the conference report is not a final action by a lot of us,” Courtney told The Hill on Wednesday. Ultimately, he said, passing something is better than nothing. 

Democrats have begun to pivot from condemning the GOP’s bill to praising the White House’s slate of opioid initiatives that were released Wednesday. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled a spate of new anti-addiction initiatives just one day after the GOP released its draft legislation. 

The HHS package included a new policy to allow doctors to have more leeway in prescribing a powerful medication to help treat addictions — a measure that was once included in Congress’s negotiations. 

Courtney said the administration’s wide-ranging plan is intended to show where it can “dovetail” with the congressional response. 

Lawmakers have spent three years drafting the opioids bill, with pressure mounting as every new government report showed an exponential rise in overdose deaths. 

The GOP had intended to pass the bill long before the November elections, delivering a boost to vulnerable Republicans such as Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) — who have both featured the bill in campaign ads.

Numerous House Republicans, including Reps. Frank Guinta (N.H.), Barbara Comstock (Va.) and Bob Dold (Ill.), have also tapped into the issue in their fight to stay in office, taking part in the House’s bipartisan panel on opioid abuse.

GOP leaders had planned to vote in early May, teeing up an accomplishment for members to tout on the campaign trail.

But a fight over funding has been threatening to doom the bill, surprising longtime policy watchers who expected it to coast through both chambers as the country faces an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths. 

In a meeting with congressional Democrats last month, White House officials urged members such as Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument MORE and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Kennedy to challenge Markey in Senate primary Overnight Energy: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists MORE to pump the brakes on the bill to help build the case for funding. 

There was at least some hope Democrats could negotiate more funds, and two dozen Senate Republicans joined all Democrats in a vote that specifically asked the conference committee to try to add funding. 

That’s far more than the five Republicans, including vulnerable incumbent Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (R-N.H.), who said they’d support adding $600 million to the bill in March. 

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who leads the bicameral conference committee on opioids, said he was “optimistic” congressional leaders could reach a deal to bring Democrats on board.

GOP leaders have promised to commit more than $500 million during this fall’s regular appropriations process, though Democrats have said it will be too late — if Congress can manage to pass a budget at all. 

“It’s not likely that the [Democrats] will sign the conference report, so at some point, it gets kicked up to the leadership levels to figure out how to get this done,” Upton said.

“I think at the end of the day, you’ll see money for it, you’ll see an agreement that’s made, but it’s not quite there yet,” he said.

“Nobody wants to get out of here without getting opioids done.”