Hopes dim for mental health deal

Greg Nash

Hopes are dimming for passage of a mental health bill in the Senate this year. 

The House this month overcame years of delay to pass a mental health reform bill on a broad bipartisan vote, but a tougher battle has emerged in the Senate over the politics of guns. 

{mosads}Senate staff in both parties have told lobbyists that legislation offered by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) may have to wait until 2017, particularly given a closing legislative window to get anything done.

Senators in both parties say they hope that they can find a way to move forward, given that both sides want to address mental health.

But their hopes are dependent on the ability to find an agreement, particularly on the issue of guns, which has so far proven elusive. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has been looking to attach gun-related language, already part of his own broader mental health bill, that would require a full judicial hearing to ban someone from buying guns due to mental illness. 

Democrats warn the language would make it easier for mentally ill people to get guns. And more broadly, they worry that including any gun-related language would open the door for Democrats to offer gun control amendments.

If the mental health fight becomes a fight over the divisive issue of gun control, many fear the legislation would be sunk.

A Senate GOP aide said that there has been some progress on reaching a deal with Democrats on the gun language. The aide said Republicans have offered language on protecting the due process gun rights of veterans who might be mentally ill that is taken from the Manchin-Toomey gun bill that Democrats already voted for.

“We’ve come to an agreement on some of the other gun-related [language] they said they had concerns with,” the GOP aide said. “Hopefully they can agree to this compromise language they’ve voted for already.”

But Democrats countered that there has been no real progress on the gun issue and that Cornyn is still calling for the proposals that they object to. 

“There is no agreement,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats warn that any gun language could derail the mental health bill, and they’ve won some support from GOP colleagues.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate health committee, told reporters this month: “Hopefully we can keep gun amendments off of it. If it turns into a gun bill it won’t go anywhere.”

He said that Murphy has been “eloquent” on the need to keep the issues separate and keep gun control amendments off the bill. 

A lack of time is also an obstacle. The Senate will be in full election mode when it returns for one month in September, and will be preoccupied with passing a continuing resolution to fund the government. 

If any floor time does open up in that month-long window before Congress breaks for the election, it could go to a different health bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, which seeks to speed up the approval of new drugs. Alexander has made clear that this legislation, which faces its own struggles, is his top priority.

If the mental health bill cannot pass the Senate before the election, there would be little time to get it through this Congress.

The underlying Murphy-Cassidy bill seeks to improve coordination of mental health programs and authorizes grants for topics like integrating physical and mental health services. It also seeks to strengthen enforcement of “parity” laws that require that insurance companies cover mental health services just as much as they cover physical health services.

Senators are still expressing some hope that it can pass. 

“Senator McConnell has asked us to see if we can narrow the amendments to three or four and get a time agreement and devote a day to it, and I think if we’re able to do that then we should be able to do it in September,” Alexander said. “That will be up to him of course.”

In May, Alexander said he was “very hopeful” that the bill could come to the floor in June, but that date has now come and gone with no signs of movement.

Asked if there would be time on the floor in September, Cornyn said, “I think if you can get all of the diverse members on both sides of the aisle to come together with a consensus bill, then I think there’s a good chance.”

Cornyn, speaking on Wednesday, a day before Congress left for its summer recess, said that there is “a lot of interest in getting something done.” 

“It sounds like more of a September project,” he added.



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