Bipartisan House trio, all in tough re-election fights, pitch bill to stop fentanyl at the border

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan House trio are introducing a bill Thursday aimed at reducing the flow of fentanyl at the U.S. southern border.

The Stop Fentanyl at the Border Act, a House companion to an existing bipartisan Senate bill, is being unveiled by Reps. Gabe Vasquez, D-N.M.; Eric Sorensen, D-Ill.; and Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore. The bill is aimed at two major issues in the 2024 elections — immigration and the opioid crisis — as all three members face tough re-election battles in November.

The bill would allocate more than $5 billion to increase staffing and technology that would detect illicit drugs, weapons and other contraband being smuggled across the border shared by the U.S. and Mexico.

There are at least 31 scanning systems, known as Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems, that are already in place along the border in personnel vehicles at ports of entry with dozens more under construction. The scanners are the strongest tool the Biden administration has to detect fentanyl in vehicles crossing the border, the Department of Homeland Security previously told NBC News.

Congress must appropriate funding to put the scanners in place at the border. Some of that money was freed up in May after NBC News reported that many of the high-tech scanners were sitting unused in warehouses.

“The opioid crisis continues to harm American families,” Vasquez told NBC News over the phone Wednesday. “This bill would help put a huge dent in what the cartel is trying to do in moving these drugs into our country.”

Nearly 74,000 Americans died in 2022 because of an overdose of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In addition to deploying the Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems, the bicameral bill would fund more law enforcement officers and border personnel.

Congress passed a bipartisan bill earlier this year to expand sanctions on fentanyl traffickers in Mexico and Chinese chemical suppliers, which President Joe Biden signed into law as part of a national security package.

But most of Capitol Hill’s efforts to address the southern border have been in vain, after Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, killed a bipartisan border security bill in a competitive election year.

Despite broad bipartisan backing, Trump and his House allies rejected the compromise, insisting instead on the conservative H.R. 2 proposal that passed the House on a party-line vote last year. The Democratic-run Senate did not take the legislation up, with Biden vowing to veto it.

“It’s a shameful thing that we are seeing in Congress today, despite fentanyl being the largest health care crisis that we are facing,” said Vasquez, who narrowly flipped his seat from red to blue in 2022. “Politics is getting in the way of us finding the solutions to stop these drugs from coming into the country.”

Vasquez alluded to his upcoming rematch against former GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell: “It’s unfortunate that MAGA Republicans like Donald Trump, and like my opponent, say, ‘Well, that’s not enough.’”

Sorensen, like Vasquez, has met constituents who lost family members — including children — to fentanyl overdoses. His swing district in northwest Illinois is hundreds of miles from Mexico, and yet the issue has rocked even his backyard.

“I’m not gonna wait for Congress to figure out how to do politics in order to solve this problem,” he told NBC News in front of the Capitol on Wednesday. “I don’t want to take another call from a mother back home who lost a child to this.”

The bill has bicameral and bipartisan support but its future is murky, less than four months before the election.

Vasquez suggested that lawmakers may insist on broad, overarching packages instead — like House Republicans’ H.R. 2 and Senate Democrats’ efforts to pass the bipartisan bill in May, neither of which has a chance at becoming law this year.

Chavez-DeRemer, a Republican in a key Oregon swing district, said for her, the fentanyl issue transcends politics. “Oregon is No. 50 in drug recovery and No. 1 in drug addiction,” she shared in an interview off the House floor. “So for us to take our eye off of that is just nonsense.”

“When people say, ‘Well, it’s an election year, well, we don’t want to work with vulnerable Democrats’ — how many kids can we lose before we decide that the southern border under these policies needs to be shut down and secured?” she asked, slamming the Biden administration for “open border policies.”

Sorensen, who is also up for re-election in a competitive race, said he doesn’t blame Biden.

“I don’t think pointing fingers at one another actually does anything to solve the problem,” Sorensen said.

“Screw politics, we’re going to get the job done,” he said.

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