Congressional Democrats called Thursday for hundreds of millions in emergency spending to fight drug abuse but ran into Republican resistance as another health issue spiraled into an election-year showdown. With the calendar edging deeper into the campaign season, the latest dispute echoes other clashes over whether the federal government should use more taxpayer dollars to contain the Zika virus and help Flint, Michigan, recover from a public health crisis in which its water system has been contaminated with lead.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee used a voice vote to approve a bipartisan bill bolstering education, prevention, treatment and law enforcement efforts against prescription opioid and heroin addiction. The measure would set up new grant programs, but lawmakers would have to provide money to finance them in later legislation.
While backing the measure, Democrats said Congress should provide extra funds now to battle illicit drug use, which killed 47,000 people in 2014. They said they would try inserting the additional funds into the legislation when the full Senate debates it in coming weeks. “We have to walk the walk, not talk the talk,” said No. 3 Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. He said that without providing extra money, “we do nothing to resolve the crisis” and accused Republicans of “a pattern” of not providing extra resources to address problems.
Asked later about the Democratic demands for extra money for drug abuse, Flint and the Zika virus, No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas said Democrats had no specific plans for using the funds or paying for the expenditures. “They want more money for everything on an emergency basis. It’s political posturing and it’s really unfortunate,” he said. “You might even call it a shakedown,” he said. “I’m going to say no.”
The bill the Senate Judiciary Committee approved was sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and had 27 co-sponsors from both parties. Both lawmakers’ states have major drug abuse problems.
Portman is one of several lawmakers facing tough re-election fights this year making the anti-drug effort a major focus. Another is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose state also has a significant drug abuse problem. Her colleague Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has introduced legislation proposing $600 million to fight opioid and heroin abuse.
In recent days, Senate Democrats proposed $600 million to help Flint, Michigan, cope with its lead-contaminated drinking water, later changing that to $200 million in grants and $600 million in loans. Republicans have countered with a smaller aid package reliant on loans, saying it’s premature to commit to major federal expenditures until that city and state have specific plans for such money.
President Barack Obama has requested $1.8 billion over the next two years to prevent the spread of the Zika virus from South America and the Caribbean. Republicans have suggested using money left over from fighting the Ebola virus, which the administration has rejected.