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Flicker of bipartisanship emerges in efforts to combat opiate abuse

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In a testy election year likely to see scant collaboration between Republicans and Democrats, there’s a glint of hope in Congress for a bipartisan bill aimed at fighting heroin and opioid addiction — a deadly, growing problem that afflicts states both red and blue.

Senate and House bills establishing grants to combat abuse, improve treatment and bolster law enforcement programs are winning support from members of both parties. President Obama used this month’s State of the Union address to call such legislation one area where lawmakers “might surprise the cynics” and get something done this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose state has one of the nation’s highest death rates from drug overdoses, said GOP senators discussed the issue at their closed-door lunch Wednesday and added that he hopes the Senate will approve legislation by the end of this year.

“We’re trying to craft something that we think makes the difference,” McConnell said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the problem “a scourge” and said the target to pass legislation should not be year’s end but “as soon as possible.”

Potential GOP changes include provisions tightening border controls to combat heroin shipments from Mexico and cracking down on excessive prescribing of painkillers, but No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas said lawmakers are “in the early stages of thinking about that.”

Both parties’ interest in the effort doesn’t mean it will have smooth sailing in Congress or isn’t colored by politics. Some Republicans prefer a greater emphasis on law enforcement attempts to stop heroin from entering the United States from Mexico, and there are concerns about the measure’s cost. And on the campaign trail, some Senate Republicans seeking re-election this November are being attacked over the issue by Democrats trying to oust them.

“It’s an effort every single state and every senator should have a strong interest in,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a leading co-sponsor of the legislation.

Nationally, drug overdose deaths have more than doubled since 2000, with a record 47,000 dying in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the number of Americans who die annually in auto accidents or from gunshots. Six in 10 of those deaths involved opiates, which include heroin and prescription pain relievers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Opioid abuse is “the No. 1 drug threat facing our country,” Louis J. Milione, a top official at the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday at a hearing on legislation sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Portman and — so far — 20 others.

The bill does not have an official price tag and leaves final decisions on how to pay for it until later.

Portman and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., whose states have major drug abuse problems, each testified in support of the measure at the judiciary panel hearing and have made the issue a top priority.

With both facing competitive re-election contests this fall, the issue lets each senator attract attention to a high-profile local concern.


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