Policy Bills Face Fight Over Supplemental Spending

From Flint to opioids, Democrats seek vehicles for emergency aid.

Sens. Joe Manchin, Patty Murray, Chuck Schumer, Jeanne Shaheen, and Edward Markey speak during a news conference on opioid and heroin abuse on Feb. 11.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Jason Plautz
Add to Briefcase
Jason Plautz
March 2, 2016, 8 p.m.

As Re­pub­lic­ans try to avoid an elec­tion-year fight over spend­ing levels, Demo­crats are look­ing for any open­ing they can to push for ex­tra cash for what they say are na­tion­al emer­gen­cies.

The latest re­quest—$600 mil­lion in sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing on a bill to ad­dress the opioid- and heroin-ab­use epi­dem­ic—was voted down Wed­nes­day, with Re­pub­lic­ans ar­guing that the money was du­plic­at­ive. But Sen. Chuck Schu­mer said it was an­oth­er ex­ample of the Far Right shut­ting down an ask for some much-needed money, con­tinu­ing a pat­tern that star­ted with a de­bate over aid to Flint, Michigan.

“Wheth­er it be the on­go­ing crisis with opioids and heroin, Flint, or the Zika vir­us, Re­pub­lic­ans are feel­ing the heat to step up and ac­tu­ally provide the re­sources ne­ces­sary to con­front these chal­lenges,” said Schu­mer. “Un­for­tu­nately so far, they’re merely talk­ing the talk and not walk­ing the walk.

“By op­pos­ing this emer­gency fund­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans have pre­ven­ted law en­force­ment and med­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als from do­ing the work they need to do to beat back this scourge,” he ad­ded.

The de­feat, on a 48-47 vote, of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s amend­ment to waive the Budget Act and provide emer­gency fund­ing for mon­it­or­ing of pre­scrip­tion drugs and law en­force­ment doesn’t ap­pear likely to im­per­il the un­der­ly­ing Com­pre­hens­ive Ad­dic­tion Re­cov­ery Act. Demo­crats have said they’ll still vote for it, even if it the policy is lack­ing without fund­ing.

But Sen. John Cornyn, the ma­jor­ity whip, said that the re­quest for sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing was set­ting a dan­ger­ous pre­ced­ent. In a floor speech this week, Cornyn con­nec­ted it to the de­bate over how to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, which de­railed a bi­par­tis­an en­ergy bill last month.

“This is not an or­derly pro­cess by which we de­term­ine what is ac­tu­ally needed and to make sure that we are ap­pro­pri­at­ing money in a fisc­ally re­spons­ible sort of way,” Cornyn said.

Re­pub­lic­ans have charged that the emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al was un­ne­ces­sary, since the om­ni­bus passed last year set aside $571 mil­lion for the crisis. Shaheen has said that money is in­suf­fi­cient, es­pe­cially com­pared with the $5.4 bil­lion ap­proved last year to fight the Ebola out­break.

While not identic­al, the strategy is re­min­is­cent of what Demo­crats did on the bi­par­tis­an en­ergy bill. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan sought to at­tach a $400 mil­lion amend­ment that would re­build the lead-con­tam­in­ated wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture in Flint, only to be re­buffed by Re­pub­lic­ans who didn’t think it was worth adding spend­ing to deal with a loc­al crisis.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Demo­crats’ second in com­mand, said Cornyn was right to link the two re­quests.

“If we’re go­ing to do any­thing to solve the prob­lem in Flint, it’s go­ing to take re­sources. If we’re ser­i­ous about the opioid situ­ation, you can au­thor­ize all you want, but if you don’t put the money in place for law en­force­ment and treat­ment, then it’s just a cam­paign stunt,” Durbin said.

“We should go off the reg­u­lar track for these two things,” he ad­ded. “They’re of an emer­gency nature.”

But Re­pub­lic­ans have balked at any at­tempt to use sup­ple­ment­al re­quests to add spend­ing, es­pe­cially with ex­ist­ing budget levels that the con­ser­vat­ive wing has already as­sailed as too high. Cornyn, in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day, said he was wor­ried about sup­ple­ment­al re­quests be­com­ing a “re­cur­ring theme,” pos­sibly upend­ing the bi­par­tis­an policy bills that ap­pear to have the best shot of mov­ing through a di­vided Sen­ate.

“If it’s ad­di­tion­al un-off­set spend­ing that’s du­plic­at­ive of what’s already been ap­pro­pri­ated, I think it’s go­ing to be a prob­lem,” Cornyn said, point­ing to the crim­in­al-justice-re­form bill as one that could be im­periled if Demo­crats seek sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing.

The White House has also re­ques­ted $1.8 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing to com­bat the Zika vir­us, al­though Re­pub­lic­ans have countered by say­ing the vir­us re­sponse should be paid for with un­spent Ebola money. If some sort of Zika bill moved, it would be the rare stand-alone sup­ple­ment­al spend­ing bill to move un­der Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, but Demo­crats have also threatened that it could be a vehicle for fund­ing for Flint, opioids, and debt re­lief for Pu­erto Rico.

To help ad­dress GOP con­cerns about spend­ing, the Flint amend­ment has been re­tooled as a bi­par­tis­an pack­age of­fer­ing $220 mil­lion to clean-wa­ter and pub­lic health pro­grams drawn from a De­part­ment of En­ergy auto-loan pro­gram (an off­set is­sue raised by the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice has been re­solved, spon­sors said). The hope is it can be re­vived along with the en­ergy bill, al­though there is at least one Re­pub­lic­an hold on it.

Shaheen, mean­while, said Wed­nes­day that her $600 mil­lion re­quest will come back in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess. “There is simply no ex­cuse for Con­gress provid­ing emer­gency fund­ing for the Ebola and ‘swine flu’ epi­dem­ics, while ig­nor­ing an opioid crisis that’s killing a per­son a day in the Gran­ite State,” she said. “Today’s vote is just the be­gin­ning.”

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