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White House To New England Democrats: Put The Brakes On Opioid Law (To Make It Better)

A man draws heroin into a syringe. Democrats in Congress are working to halt opioid legislation in an attempt to make the laws better.
A man draws heroin into a syringe. Democrats in Congress are working to halt opioid legislation in an attempt to make the laws better.

The plan has been hatched: after pushing and pushing for an opioid-addiction treatment bill, Washington Democrats will now attempt to stall that legislation, to buy time to raise public pressure for making it better.

That was the upshot of a meeting I was invited to this past Wednesday, along with a few other journalists, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

The hour-long meeting occasionally felt a little like a show—but if it was, it was an awfully impressive one. A discussion among administration and congressional Democrats about the opioid abuse problem, the group around a conference table consisted of three U.S. Senators and four House members from the Capitol; plus President Barack Obama’s directors of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Domestic Policy Council, Legislative Affairs, and National Drug Control Policy.

There was a distinctly local north-of-Boston flavor to it: led by Malden’s own Michael Botticelli—now Obama’s drug czar—the roster included Senator Ed Markey, also of Malden, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Cambridge. Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Melrose was there. OMB director Shaun Donovan has three degrees from Harvard; Senator Jeanne Shaheen taught there. Ann Kuster of New Hampshire and two representatives from New Mexico rounded out the group.

Botticelli has launched a major national media blitz on opioid funding, to accompany outreach to Congress. Most specifically, he and the White House have been drawing attention to President Barack Obama’s FY ’17 budget proposal, made back in February, to devote $1.1 billion over two years to treatment programs. 

“This is not a problem where we don’t know what to do, it’s whether we have the will to do it,” Botticelli said to start the Wednesday meeting. “Without additional funding for treatment we’re not going to see progress.”    

The timing of this White House lobbying effort relates to two ongoing legislative tracks. One is the budgeting process. The prior week, the Senate Appropriations Committee finalized the appropriations bill containing the opioid funding. Republicans are boasting of the increase they’ve included there.  

But Donovan, the White House’s numbers guru, said at Wednesday’s meeting that the Senate bill includes an increase of $35 million for opioid treatment—a pittance compared with the White House’s $1.1 billion request.

“If we don’t get to substantially increase resources, by more than an order magnitude,” Donovan said, “we’re not serious about the scale of this challenge.”

Hence the lobbying, and the public outreach to bring pressure on Congress directly from voters.

Just the day before that meeting, as part of its new push to garner popular support, the White House released new estimates of how much of that $1.1 billion would, theoretically, go to each state. Massachusetts is in line for up to $20 million; New England in total could get as much as $46 million.

Appropriations bills are not the only way, however—and, as White House Legislative Director Amy Rosenbaum pointed out, would not get money flowing until late this year at the earliest. So, they are really focusing on the second legislative track: the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), authored in the Senate by Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, and countered in the House by a series of votes a month ago.

On Thursday, just 24 hours after this meeting, Congress officially sent that package of legislation to a conference committee to work out a version acceptable for both chambers.

Neither the House or Senate versions include significant funding increases—despite valiant, emotional attempts, led by Shaheen and Kuster, to add $600 million to it.

Interestingly, however, the Senate did vote on Thursday, while sending the bill to conference committee, to add an instruction for the committee to try to add that funding. Two dozen Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, joined Democrats voting in favor of that instruction. 

Perhaps that’s a sign that attitudes are changing swiftly. Three months ago, Collins and Ayotte were among just five Republicans who voted in favor of Shaheen’s amendment to include the $600 million in the bill.

But, at the meeting on Wednesday, the consensus was that Republicans would never deliver on the money, unless, as Warren, put it, “we turn the heat up under the Republicans who just keep saying no.”

How to do that dominated the remainder of the conversation; suggestions centered around press conferences featuring local law enforcement officials (Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe, who was also at the meeting, reported on those suggestions).

Whatever the methods, that kind of public pressure needs time to build. And that, Greenbaum said, is why the White House needs its friends in the Capitol building to keep that conference committee from finalizing the opioid bill.

“We need to slow down the conference enough, so that the White House, with your help, and the help of your colleagues, can bring it back to the American people,” Greenbaum said. “We do need your help slowing it down.”

The congressional members at the meeting were eager to help. They also seemed ready to believe that public sentiment is not only on their side, but could really generate pressure to change Republican lawmakers’ minds.

And, again, Thursday’s successful vote on Shaheen’s instruction to the conference committee might be a sign that it’s happening.

Copyright 2016 GBH