Will Guns and Money Disagreements Derail Senate's Mental Health Bill?

Senators are still negotiating the future of a broad bipartisan mental health reform bill, and stakeholders are hoping potential floor action won't get derailed by a debate over guns or funding. But the Senate’s time and attention will soon be taken up with appropriations legislation, and one of the main Democratic sponsors behind the mental health bill is urging his colleagues to act before it’s too late. 

The Mental Health Reform Act (S. 2680) was approved in March by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but more work needs to be done before the Senate can have a vote. The bill was approved without any funding elements. It also is expected to be combined with legislation from the Senate Judiciary Committee (S. 2002), which addresses the link between mental health and the criminal justice system.  Democrats have objected to a provision in that bill about background checks that they say would make it easier for mentally ill people to get guns. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the sponsor of the Judiciary Committee measure, has said he would be open to an alternative in order to move the bill forward, even though he doesn't understand Democrats' objections. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the main Democratic co-sponsors of the HELP mental health legislation, told reporters that conversations with Cornyn and other Judiciary Committee members are just starting.  
“The bill got out of committee two days before we left [for a two-week recess], so we’re just starting the process of sitting down and talking,” Murphy said. “We’re still talking to him about whether we can move forward without those [gun] provisions. Obviously I can’t support a bill on the floor that has those provisions in it.” 

I asked HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) how the discussions have been progressing since the bill was reported out of committee. 

“One of the decisions senators will have to make is whether we want to have a gun debate in connection with the mental health bill,” Alexander said. “I think most of us would prefer to focus directly on mental health and leave the gun discussion for another day.”  

But the potential gun language isn’t the only hurdle. Because the mental health bill advanced to the floor without any funding elements, finding the necessary offsets for any provision after the fact is no easy task. 

“It won’t surprise you that there’s not a lot of appetite for big new expenditures, and we’re going to be competing with other bills that have pay-fors which might be moving to the floor before the mental health bill,” Murphy said.  
One prominent example is the Senate's medical innovation package. The final bills in the Senate's version of the House's 21st Century Cures legislation were approved by the HELP Committee April 6.  
“If that bill comes to the floor before mental health it could gobble up some pay-fors that we would be looking at,” Murphy said. “Pay-fors are always pulling teeth in this Congress. I’ve said from the beginning it’s questionable if the mental health reform bill is worthwhile without additional resources. My bottom line is somewhere, somehow we’ve got to have a conversation about expanding resources.”  

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