Democrats huddle with White House officials on opioid funding

WASHINGTON — How do Democrats get a Republican-controlled Congress to spend more money on fighting the national opioid epidemic?

Compare the heroin scourge to a terrorist threat, suggested Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Shame them, offered Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and U.S. Representative Ann McLane Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat.

Hold a giant cable-ready press conference with families suffering from the impacts of addiction and make it a presidential campaign issue, other lawmakers added — a plan the White House quickly approved.

Welcome to the conclave where Democratic powerbrokers huddled with White House officials on Tuesday to plot how to pry more money out of Republican hands.


The White House invited half a dozen Democrats to the meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located across the street from the West Wing and opened it to a few print reporters.

President Obama has proposed $1.1 billion over two years to increase access to addiction treatment. Representing the White House were Cecilia Munoz, Domestic Policy Council director, Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy, and Amy Rosenbaum, Legislative Affairs director.

In addition to Markey, Warren and Kuster, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Representatives Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico were present.

Republicans say they want to support the fight against opioid addiction — just not outside the normal budget appropriations process, which Democrats have called a “false promise.” Representatives for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“How are we planning to turn the heat up under the Republicans who just keep on saying no?” Warren asked.

Markey suggested putting the opioid crisis in terms that regular Americans could understand — terrorism.


“The terror for ordinary families of America is not Aleppo; it’s not Fallujah; it’s this epidemic coming down their streets,” Markey said. “I would use the terror metaphor, but put it in a domestic context. The same way this self-radicalized person killed 49 people in Orlando, the same kind of terror is coming in from China, through Mexico, up to the streets of America.”

Obama, he said, should make his case directly to citizens that “he’s on the front lines, he’s fighting it, and will provide the weaponry at the local level.”

“You have to elevate this to the level of warfare,” Markey said.

Kuster, cofounder and co-chair of the 80-member Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic, called it “political malpractice” for Republicans to make speeches about combatting heroin abuse without allocating the money necessary to treat addiction.

She said she’s spoken about her concerns with Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican up for re-election who has crossed party lines to support Obama’s request for more funding. Ayotte also co-sponsored a Shaheen amendment for $600 million in emergency funding to help combat the prescription opioid abuse and heroin epidemic, but the measure failed.

“You could really focus in politically on a couple of people and Senator McConnell would need to deliver,” Kuster said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.