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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