Trump aide sees room for talks on Democrats’ opioid bill

Trump’s top drug control official left the door open to a bipartisan deal on a bill authorizing billions to address opioid crisis

From left, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., conduct a news conference in the Capitol on January 10, 2019. Cummings and Elizabeth Warren released a draft bill Wednesday that would authorize $100 billion over a decade to address the opioid crisis. Trump’s aide left the door open Thursday for a bipartisan solution with the bill’s sponsors. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats got a surprising compliment from the Trump administration’s top drug control official at a Thursday hearing as they discussed boosting opioid addiction treatment funding, while Republicans promoted efforts to stem illegal drugs through securing the southern border.

House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who presided at the full committee hearing, touted a draft bill that Chairman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland released with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday that would authorize $100 billion over 10 years to address the crisis. The bill, which is supported by all of the committee’s Democrats, faces a tough path to becoming law without Republican support.

Office for National Drug Control Policy head Jim Carroll left the door open to potentially negotiating a bipartisan solution with the bill’s sponsors.

“It’s very clear that we share a mutual goal of saving lives, and it speaks to that,” said Carroll, adding that he was interested in finding the most effective and efficient way to address the problem. “I commend the heart and spirit of this bill.”

Ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, took a shot at the bill in his opening remarks.

“This is not a problem that funding alone can solve, not even $100 billion,” said Jordan.

Carroll was making his second appearance before the panel, after a contentious hearing in March. At that time, committee Democrats and a Government Accountability Office witness criticized the White House’s approach to combating the epidemic.

Cummings asked Carroll to return this month after requesting that the GAO provide supplemental documents to further clarify the administration’s plans.

Different strategies

Democrats focused their questions on expanding evidence-based care like medication-assisted treatment. GAO’s oversight of the drug control agency, which played a more central role in the March hearing, was less of a focus Thursday.

Five lawmakers — Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and Reps. Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Katie Hill of California, and Ro Khanna of California — stressed the importance of the 2010 health care law and its Medicaid expansion to substance use disorder treatment.

Director of the Delaware Division of Public Health Karyl Rattay said that coverage expansion has been essential in her state.

“Medicaid has been at the forefront for allowing naloxone and buprenorphine to be available to our state,” said Rattay, referring to the opioid overdose reversal drug and a form of medication-assisted treatment, respectively. “Going backwards and reversing the expansion would be extremely detrimental and we would lose lives based on that.”

Seventy-two percent of the state’s 400 overdose deaths last year were from the illegal synthetic drug fentanyl.

Pressley asked Carroll if he backs the administration’s opposition to the health law.

“Getting treatment to individuals is the most important thing that I can do,” responded Carroll. “I believe that the health care policy going forward is going to save lives.”

Hill said she would like to see contingency plans from ONDCP and GAO on how potential court action to overturn the health law would be addressed.

“I’ll see what we can get you as soon as possible,” said Carroll.

Carroll and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., got into a feisty exchange when she asked for an update on the goals set by the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which was established in 2017.

Speier asked Carroll where in the process the White House was in implementing the commission's 56 policy recommendations.

Carroll referred to a summary he'd already submitted to the committee, which Democrats have said is insufficient.

“It’s a pretty simple request,” Speier said, urging Carroll to come again with more detailed information.

“I think I did respond in a very simple manner,” said Carroll.

Both Speier and Carroll said they objected to the other's tone.

Border control

Republicans spent much of their time asking Carroll and another witness, Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard County, Fla., how immigration policy changes could stop the flow of drugs from Mexico.

A rising number of overdose deaths are linked to fentanyl, which is mainly produced in China, but Republicans view an investment in law enforcement and a physical barrier between the ports of entry as central to stopping heroin and other drugs.

Rep. Jody B. Hice, R-Ga., acknowledged that resources are needed to continue this approach.

“A lot of it [seized drugs] is at the ports of entry is because we have the resources — the manpower, the dogs,” said Hice. “Just because we have those types of resources there, it’s safe to assume that we have a ton of drugs coming outside our ports of entry.”

Carroll agreed with Hice and other Republicans such as Reps. Carol Miller of West Virginia, Clay Higgins of Louisiana, Chip Roy of Texas, and Michael Cloud of Texas.

“We have to secure the country and that starts with securing the southwest border,” said Carroll.

He also described scenarios in which drug cartels find Customs and Border Patrol agents and distract them by attempting to “flood the zone with immigrants” and then smuggling drugs into the country when CBP is preoccupied.

Ivey said the current drug crisis limits the ability to do other aspects of enforcement.

“Right now, fighting this opioid epidemic is draining my resources,” said Ivey. “Being able to stop it at the border, being able to stop it from coming into the country, would allow me to focus my efforts on other drug control efforts.”

Not all of Thursday's action was strictly partisan.

Earlier, members on both sides of the committee met with four individuals who lost a loved one to the opioid crisis, and multiple lawmakers during the hearing thanked the participants for sharing their stories.

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