President Obama intends to sign the drug-treatment and prevention legislation that emerged from Congress on Wednesday, designed in part to combat the epidemic of opioid addiction that has swept the country and emerged as a major campaign issue.
The high-profile bill approved by the House and Senate would greatly enhance prevention and treatment practices of medical professionals, community health centers and law enforcement agencies and increase the availability of a drug that can be used by first responders and medical workers to reverse the effects of drug overdoses. The Senate cleared the bill on Wednesday by an overwhelming vote of 92 to 2.
But Obama and congressional Democrats are greatly troubled by a glaring omission in the legislation: there is no money in the authorization to pay for these and other initiatives to begin to rein in the rampant abuse of prescription drug pain killers.
The president had requested including at least $920 million in the legislation to underwrite the cost of state-sponsored treatment of addicts, but congressional Republican leaders said that Congress would approve overall funding this fall as part of the regular appropriations process. House Appropriations Committee chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) promised there would be at least $600 million dedicated to opioid addiction over the coming year. “There’s plenty of money” to finance all the programs, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) added.
But that was cold comfort for Obama and Democratic leaders, who worry that opioid addiction spending will somehow get caught up in another partisan, election-year budget pileup in September, just weeks before the deadline for new fiscal 2017 spending to keep the government operating. “While the President will sign this bill once it reaches his desk because some action is better than none, he won’t stop fighting to secure the resources this public health crisis demands,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
As political tensions mount in a campaign year with control of the White House and Senate at stake, finding bipartisan agreement on almost any major spending bill is highly problematic. Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, warns that House and Senate Democrats and Republicans may be inadvertently heading into a political “box canyon” this fall.
“I think they have a huge set of headaches,” Ornstein said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t see how they can avoid at least the threat of another government shutdown in October on many of the appropriations bills.
For example, absent a last minute miracle, Congress will depart on Friday for the summer without agreeing on a $1.1 billion spending measure to combat the spread of the highly dangerous Zika virus throughout the continental United States, which can cause grotesque birth defects in pregnant women and paralysis of adults who come in contact with mosquitos carrying the disease.
While both parties recognize the importance of getting funding approved six months after Obama first submitted a request, the legislation is bogged down in the Senate, where Democrats are blocking a final vote unless Republicans drop several “poison pill” amendments, including one that would cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood.
The latest effort to break the deadlock failed this afternoon when Republicans fell well short of the 60 votes they needed to cut off a Democratic filibuster and approve the measure.
At the same time, Senate Democrats have blocked action on a new Defense Department appropriations bill in a dispute with a House Republican accounting gimmick that would add $18 billion to the spending legislation.
For now, both sides are engaging in finger-pointing and seem unwilling to back down. “When they were in the majority, they didn’t want to pass appropriations bills. When they were in the minority, they don’t want to pass appropriations bills,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) complained about the Democrats. “I gave it every opportunity this year to succeed. We have spent weeks and weeks and weeks trying to get a regular order of process on appropriations through the Senate.”
Things are no better across the Capitol, where the House approved a $32 billion Interior spending bill for fiscal 2017 Thursday afternoon that Obama already has vowed to veto. The bill, approved 231 to 196, includes a raft of measures to roll back the administration’s clean air and clean water regulations, according to the Associated Press.
Ironically, this was supposed to be a relatively easy, just-follow-the-dots kind of budget season. Late last year, Congress and the president struck a two-year, bipartisan budget deal providing for $1.07 trillion annually in discretionary programs other than entitlements and interest on the debt.
As part of the deal that was negotiated by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), the two parties agreed to raise legally imposed spending caps on defense and domestic programs. In that way, the agreement would simultaneously appease Republican defense hawks who wanted more spending for the Pentagon and Democrats eager to protect spending for key social and economic programs.
Yet the House and Senate have yet to agree on even one of the dozen annual spending bills necessary to put that budget blue print into law. And lawmakers may be forced once again to roll essential spending into one, massive continuing resolution to keep the government operating beyond the start of a new fiscal year Oct. 1.
For Boehner’s successor House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), the biggest challenge may be trying to draw his party’s staunch conservative wing in line to pass spending bills in keeping with the budget deal.
Leaders of the 40-member House Freedom Caucus, who were instrumental in forcing Boehner into an early retirement, are defying Ryan by demanding that Congress cut $30 billion off the topline of the trillion-dollar annual budget agreement. They blocked passage of the budget plan drafted by Ryan and House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-GA) and vowed to oppose major spending bills unless they are trimmed back and offset by cuts in other programs.
"We want to help with the process, we want to have a budget [but] we want to have a budget that complies with what we promised the American people,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a leader of the Freedom Caucus, said earlier this year, according to Politico. "The budget right now ... does not take into reality how the American people feel."
Unless Ryan can find a way to bring Labrador and other far-right Republicans on board, it will be almost impossible for him to pass major spending bills this fall, when there will be little time for extended negotiations and wrangling.
Ornstein said that the Freedom Caucus has begun to rebel against Ryan in a number of ways, including its latest efforts to force a House vote to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen over the objections of Ryan and other House leaders.
“They don’t want to vote for any spending bills and they don’t like the budget deal that Boehner struck to help out Ryan,” Ornstein said.