NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen said Friday that his first action in the U.S. Senate would be to file or co-sponsor legislation to repeal a 2016 law criticized for weakening federal authority to curb opioid distribution. The announcement sought to put his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the spot for supporting the law.
Bredesen discussed the idea at an opioid forum in a packed day on the campaign trail for the two Senate hopefuls in a tightly contested race.
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa also visited Tennessee to boost Blackburn, weighing in on President Donald Trump's tariffs during an agricultural round-table. Ernst said Iowa farmers can tolerate tariffs in the short term, but trade deals need to be completed soon.
At the opioid event, Bredesen said the Blackburn-backed law "defanged" the Drug Enforcement Agency in its fine print. Further, Bredesen said "Congress needs to admit that it has an opioid problem."
Reports by The Washington Post and CBS News in October 2017 shed light on the law passed unanimously by Congress and signed by then-President Barack Obama. Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, whose involvement in the legislation was detailed in the reports, withdrew his name from consideration to become Trump's federal drug czar shortly after the news reports.
Blackburn has called for addressing any "unintended consequences" of the law, which she said she became involved in to ensure people who needed prescription drugs could get them, while also cracking down on illicit opioid use. She has received about the 19th most donations in Congress from the pharmaceutical and health products industries this election cycle, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.
Bredesen's campaign said it's been more than 300 days since Blackburn said she'd work on the unintended consequences.
"The only people it makes mad is pharma, and I don't care about that," Bredesen told reporters, concerning a proposal repeal. "Let's help some of these people in local government, local law enforcement, local health care facilities to start cutting off some of the flow of these drugs into the pill mills and places like that."
Blackburn told reporters that the Drug Enforcement Agency was supposed to report back to Congress in April 2017 about whether the law wasn't working, but has missed its deadlines.
She said lawmakers are continuing to weigh in with the agency and conduct oversight, and "when they give us a change they want, we will take the action."
"The goal is to shut down these prescribers that are issuing these prescriptions, these pill mills, that are fulfilling these manufacturers and distributors, that are over-shipping," Blackburn said.
Among other ideas, Blackburn focused on support for a three-day federal opioid prescription limit, with exceptions for cancer and hospice treatment.
In the discussion on agriculture, Ernst said she has pushed Trump to get trade deals done before the election. She said she's concerned more about quickly completing deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. But she believes Americans are "more forgiving" if a deal with China takes a bit longer, saying it's possible that could take "a matter of months."
"I know it's true in Iowa, it's probably true here as well, but if we don't get these trade deals done, it's going to reflect negatively upon our Republican candidates," Ernst said.
Tariffs have become a focal point in the race in Tennessee, where industries ranging from whiskey, to agriculture, to car manufacturing worry about negative impacts. Bredesen has opposed them loudly and often, using the issue to break from a Republican president who remains popular in the state. Blackburn, a strong Trump ally, says she's against them as well and is "hopeful we get this behind us real soon."
Ernst said she "doesn't really appreciate the tariffs," but added that the Chinese are "running out of things to tariff, we're not."
"I haven't seen the prices of goods go up at Walmart or anything yet," Ernst said. "So I think we can hang on much longer than China can."