The federal government’s funding runs out after Friday, meaning that Congress has just days to pass a stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, to prevent a shutdown and keep agencies running through March 11. But the Senate’s path to doing that is clouded by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who has put a hold on the bill as she seeks assurances that taxpayer dollars will not be used to distribute crack pipes.
What the holdup is about: The funding extension passed the House last week and has broad bipartisan support; neither Republicans nor Democrats want a government shutdown. But Blackburn has objected to a new $30 million grant program, funded by the $19 trillion American Rescue Plan Act enacted early last year, that aims to reduce the risk of overdoses and disease transmission associated with drug use. “The grant allows recipients to provide such items as testing equipment for sexually transmitted diseases and overdose reversal medication, along with ‘safe smoking kits’ to curb the spread of diseases among users of smokable drugs,” PolitiFact explained last week.
The conservative Washington Free Beacon last week ran a story about the harm reduction grant program under the headline, "Biden Admin To Fund Crack Pipe Distribution To Advance ‘Racial Equity.’” The story claimed that an unnamed Biden administration spokesperson had said the program would "provide pipes for users to smoke crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ‘any illicit substance.’"
The Biden administration denied those claims, with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta issuing a joint statement that said “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”
But conservatives, including Blackburn, pounced on the story. Blackburn last week put a hold on the continuing resolution, saying she wants to make sure that taxpayer money won’t go toward distributing drug paraphernalia.
The facts: Numerous fact checkers have shot down the conservatives’ claims that the Biden administration will be spending $30 million on crack pipes, noting that the “safe smoking kits” — which, according to The Washington Post, typically include items such as a rubber mouthpiece to prevent cuts and burns, brass screens to filter contaminants and disinfectant wipes — are just one of 12 categories of supplies the grants can be used to purchase, and crack pipes are not among the supplies listed in the grant proposal.
“Suggestions that the government is ‘spending $30 million on crack pipes’ are wrong even beyond the question of whether the grants involve the distribution of crack pipes,” PolitiFact noted. “That’s because $30 million is roughly the amount of all the possible grants collectively, and smoking kits would account for a small fraction of that.”
What’s next: It’s not clear how the Senate will resolve the holdup. “It's amazing to us that they continue to ignore this issue, and they continue to say they are fighting drugs when indeed they're enabling drugs,” Blackburn told Newsmax on Monday.
A Blackburn spokesman told the Associated Press Monday that the senator would drop her objections if she received a promise in writing that taxpayers' money wouldn't be spent on the pipes. A delay in passing the stopgap spending bill could mean that the bill doesn’t reach President Biden’s desk in time to avert a short funding lapse
“While objections like this are often quickly resolved, there’s no guarantee at a time when federal government funding is on the verge of expiring,” Jennifer Shutt wrote Friday for States Newsroom.
Postal reform bill also held up: A clerical error could also delay the Senate’s consideration of a bill to reform the Postal Service. The House passed that legislation, meant to ease the Postal Service’s financial strains, last week, but staffers reportedly sent the Senate an earlier version of the bill that left out late amendments. The House fixed the error by approving a technical correction bill via unanimous consent.
That fix means the Senate now needs unanimous consent to move ahead with a procedural vote on the bill, but Sen Rick Scott (R-FL) reportedly objects. Alan Fram of the Associated Press said that Scott’s aides didn't return messages Monday seeking an explanation.
“The postal bill is the definition of legislation that should sail through the Congress,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Monday.
Unless Scott changes his mind, the Postal Service reform bill reportedly may have to wait a few weeks before the Senate takes it up.
The bottom line: “No, the word ‘Senate’ is not Latin for ‘It's never easy.’ But sometimes it seems that way,” the AP’s Fram writes. Remember, on the government funding bill, lawmakers are only looking to pass a three-week patch to give negotiators more time to finalize the long-delayed full-year spending bills that are lawmakers’ most basic responsibility.