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 most expensive congressional races of the last decade McCaskill: 'Mitch McConnell has presided over absolutely destroying Senate norms' Claire McCaskill: Young girls 'are now aspiring' to be like Warren, Klobuchar after debate 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 John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' 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 McConnellHawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Democrats file brief against Trump, 'the Framers' worst nightmare' Iran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner 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 HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals 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 Jean KlobucharSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans Poll: Sanders holds 5-point lead over Buttigieg in New Hampshire 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 ConnollyTrump, Democrats set for brawl on Iran war powers Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers Democrats 'utterly unpersuaded' by evidence behind Soleimani strike 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate begins preparations for Trump trial Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat Appeals court skeptical of Trump rule on TV drug ads 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.”