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Congress to end term with legislation on cancer research, opioid treatment

They’d hoped for a legacy-defining trade deal, a major rewrite of the corporate tax code or a criminal justice overhaul that would have freed thousands of federal prisoners.

Instead, Congress will slink out of town next month with its 2016 legacy defined by legislation to speed drug approvals, cancer research and opioid treatment — a heavily lobbied, $ 6 billion package that’s being cheered on Capitol Hill as a “game changer,” yet has little name recognition elsewhere and would have been considered a low-tier priority at the start of the year.

Party leaders struck a deal over the Thanksgiving break to inject nearly $ 5 billion into the National Institutes of Health, including $ 1.8 billion for Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s “moonshot” project to find a cure for cancer.

The deal frees up another $ 1 billion in state grants to combat America’s prescription drug and heroin epidemic, and includes long-sought mental health reforms, such as grants for suicide prevention and the establishment of a new assistant secretary for mental health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

House lawmakers will vote on the bill Wednesday, though senators aren’t yet sold on funding and disclosure provisions in the current version.

“I would encourage colleagues on both sides to continue working together so that we can complete our work soon,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Monday, rattling off a to-do list before lawmakers skip town, eager to put a cap on 2016.

Republican leaders frequently cite their accomplishments since taking full charge of Congress in 2015, such as a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law to fixes to Medicare’s outdated payment system.

Yet their second year in charge was defined more by fights over Puerto Rico’s fiscal troubles and federal funding to combat the Zika virus.

The results of this month’s election have also put a damper on what had been ambitious plans for a lame-duck session. With Republicans poised to claim full control of the political levers of government, Congress is doing only mop-up duty now.

The medical innovation package, dubbed “21st Century Cures,” is the only big-ticket item to survive.

“Hope springs eternal at the beginning of every two-year Congress, but I’m not sure there was much of a chance to get anything done given the hyperpartisanship that’s gripped Capitol Hill,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. “Once the Trump revolution came along, it made it more difficult to get Republicans to agree to common-sense compromises.”

Criminal justice reform seemed to have momentum last year but fell to the wayside in 2016 after some Republicans — including Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate for attorney general — rejected efforts to lighten punishments for certain offenders.

Republicans then punted on the spending process this year, saying they’ll pass a short-term spending bill in December to get them into the new year, when Mr. Trump will have a say.

The “continuing resolution” will carry government operations at current levels through the end of March, giving the new Congress and GOP president a chance to work on broader legislation to fund the basic operations of government for fiscal year 2017, which lasts until Sept. 30.

“It has not been a productive year for Congress. Very little was accomplished as the institution bogged down in partisan bickering,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Next year more legislation will be passed because there will be a Republican president, House and Senate,” he said. “There will be major legislation, although the two parties will disagree over how much help is being provided for middle-class voters.”

A senior House GOP aide on Monday argued Republicans never promised action on big-ticket items, knowing the politics were tough.

“Bottom line, we knew well that there wasn’t much common ground left in the eighth year of President Obama, and made clear back in January that our focus was going to be setting ourselves up for a successful 2017, which we have done quite well,” the aide said.

A massive overhaul of the entire tax code is on tap for next year, according to the “Better Way” agenda House Speaker Paul D. Ryan carried into the election.

Criminal justice reform, which had appeared to have bipartisan support at the beginning of this Congress, may take a backseat in a Trump administration.

“With the opposition of an Attorney General Sessions,” Mr. Manley said, “I think it’s very difficult to imagine that getting done.”

For now, most lawmakers are spotlighting their priorities in the medical-innovation bill. Democrats like the substance abuse and mental health provisions, while Republicans cheered provisions to speed up the approval of new drugs and medical devices at the Food and Drug Administration.

New spending in the bill is paid for with $ 3.5 billion from Obamacare’s prevention and public health fund, as Mr. Trump vows to repeal and replace the health care law, plus tweaks to Medicare payments and the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“What we have in the 21st Century Cures Act is an innovation game-changer, a transformational bill to bring our health infrastructure light years ahead to best match the incredible breakthroughs that are happening by the day,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said. “And it is critical to remember that passing 21st Century Cures is the best way to ensure some of this funding occurs immediately in fiscal 2017.”

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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