Senate approves bipartisan bill bolstering anti-drug efforts

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WASHINGTON >> The Senate paused Thursday from its nasty partisan clash over the Supreme Court vacancy and easily approved election-year legislation reinforcing government efforts against heroin and the abuse of opioid painkillers.

By an overwhelming 94-1 margin, lawmakers completed a bill that would create grants to bolster state and local programs targeted at a growing, deadly problem. More than 47,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014 in cities and rural areas alike, a death rate that more than doubled since 2000.

The bipartisan vote contrasted with the parties' rancorous divide over Republicans' refusal to consider anyone President Barack Obama picks to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the high court.

That battle has dominated the Senate's business since Scalia's Feb. 13 death, with Democrats using it to label Republicans as obstructionists.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP lawmakers have been eager to pass the anti-drug bill and cite it as an accomplishment of the Republican-run chamber.

The legislation was sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Portman, along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and other Republicans facing competitive re-election races in swing states have sought to give the bill a high profile as an example of the Senate addressing pressing local problems.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the drug problem has grown most significantly in the Northeast, Midwest and South. West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio had the highest death rates from drug overdoses in 2014.

The bill's one-sided approval came after Republicans defeated a Democratic effort last week to add $600 million to the legislation.

The measure provides no new money for its grants. Republicans argued previously approved money could be used, but Democrats contested that and said the measure would be badly weakened without additional funds.

In a letter this month expressing support for the bill's grants, White House officials said that unless Congress provides extra money, the bill "would do little to address the epidemic" of drug abuse. The letter did not threaten a veto.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the bill would establish programs worth $725 million through 2021.

The bill includes money to train emergency workers to treat drug abusers, create treatment programs that would be alternatives to imprisonment and finance recovery programs at schools and non-profit groups. It would also provide some money for local law enforcement efforts.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was the lone vote against the bill. The House has yet to advance its own legislation.


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