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Republicans refuse to back opioids bill sponsored by vulnerable Dem

Republicans refuse to back opioids bill sponsored by vulnerable Dem
© Greg Nash

Republicans are declining to back Democratic measures that would crack down on suspicious opioid shipments — including legislation offered by Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Memo: Punish Trump or risk a repeat, warn Democrats GOP senators criticized for appearing to pay half-hearted attention to trial Hawley watches trial from visitor's gallery MORE (D-Mo.), one of the most vulnerable members up for reelection this year.

McCaskill said she has approached multiple Republicans about backing her bill, and all have refused. 

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“I have tried to get Republican co-sponsors and for the life of me I can’t figure out why everyone’s afraid of this bill,” said McCaskill, who is running for reelection in a state President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE won by 18 points in 2016.

McCaskill’s bill would repeal a 2016 law that a Washington Post–“60 Minutes” investigation last fall found is impeding the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) ability to freeze suspicious opioid shipments, flooding pharmacies in small towns with pills and fueling the opioid crisis.

The two-term senator, a frequent guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” is locked in a tough reelection race with state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). A Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month found the race essentially tied, with McCaskill up 1 point over Hawley, 45 percent to 44 percent. 

Asked whether she thought Republicans were avoiding the bill because she is up for reelection, McCaskill acknowledged politics could be in play.

“I have no idea,” she said. “[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Klain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' How to pass legislation in the Senate without eliminating the filibuster MORE works magic sometimes.”

McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office and the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to requests for comment. 

In the House, Republicans have also stayed away from Democratic measures on the issue — which could suggest the issue goes beyond McCaskill.

House Democrats have discussed a number of reasons for the GOP reticence, including whether drug companies are blocking action, or whether Republicans are seeking to protect the sponsor of the original legislation on the issue, Rep. Tom MarinoThomas (Tom) Anthony MarinoWhy the North Carolina special election has national implications The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Republican wins special House election in Pennsylvania MORE (R-Pa.).

Efforts to address the 2016 law have been left out of an emerging opioid package in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Democratic aides say Republicans on the committee have told them a fix on the issue is unlikely to be included in the opioid package the panel is working on, and that there is not a pressing need for a legislative fix.

A spokesperson for Republicans on the committee said lawmakers are still discussing possible changes with the DEA. “We continue to work with DEA regarding possible legislative changes,” the Energy and Commerce spokesperson said. “It’s imperative we get this policy right, and we are doing our due diligence.”

While Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHow President Biden can hit a home run Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line MORE (R-Utah) is publicly opposed to a full repeal of the law, a number of Republicans did voice support for making changes after it came under heavy criticism from both parties following the Post–“60 Minutes” story.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t [sign on],” Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference Klobuchar, Murkowski urge FTC to protect domestic abuse victims' data MORE (D-Minn.) said of Republicans. “That [investigation] was an outrage. We had a number of meetings and hearings about it, and everything that had been reported ended up being borne out, that it really stifled some really important investigation work and made the opioid epidemic worse.” 

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump teases on 2024 run Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE (D-Va.), who has a bill in the House to amend the 2016 law to give the DEA more authority, thinks Republicans may be seeking to protect Marino, who worked on the original legislation and later withdrew from his nomination to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy amid the controversy.

“They may feel they need to protect the author of the bill,” said Connolly, who says he has not gotten any traction on his bill so far.

Marino’s office, though, said that he is currently working with colleagues on changes to the law, and actually wants to ensure that the new standard provides enough authority to the DEA to act.

McCaskill also floated the possibility that pharmaceutical companies could be blocking her bill. 

Asked about her remarks, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade group for drug companies, referred back to a statement from last fall denying reports that it had lobbied for the 2016 law in the first place and calling for the law to be repealed after the Post published its investigation.  

An aide to Hatch said the senator has made the case for why full repeal would be a mistake, and that the patient concerns he cites are the real reason Republicans are not backing the effort. 

Hatch says the law was needed to address concerns from patient advocates and drug manufacturers who said patients who legitimately needed opioids could be cut off if the DEA had too wide an ability to suspend shipments. 

“Senator Hatch does not believe that full repeal would be good policy,” said Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock. “He remains committed to working with his colleagues, the DEA, and other stakeholders on possible changes that would ensure legitimate patients have access to the treatments they require, while ensuring DEA has the tools it needs to combat abuse and diversion.” 

“I’d suggest this is the real reason the more dramatic [repeal] efforts have stalled,” he added. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGarland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role Bipartisan group of senators introduces bill to rein in Biden's war powers MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, said he supported action to fix the law but had not had any discussions about the issue recently.

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t had a conversation on that for about a month,” Grassley said. “I think there was an assumption we were going to move on something.”