Senate Takes Step Toward Bipartisan Mental Health Dealby Peter Sullivan - The Hill September 9, 2016
Lawmakers are making progress toward a bipartisan deal on mental health legislation in the Senate, though there is a rapidly closing window of time to finish the deal.
Mental health groups met with top senators Thursday and discussed a way past one of the major holdups for a deal in the Senate: a dispute over gun-related language being offered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) as part of his larger mental health bill.
Cornyn's staff said Thursday that there has been progress towards a bipartisan deal to resolve this dispute in the "last 24 hours," according to Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America, who was in the meetings.
"They said they were looking at some alternate language that they felt was agreeable," Gionfriddo said.
A Senate Democratic aide said: "Nothing's done until it's done, but things are looking up. Recent discussions have been productive." A deal could include some provisions from Cornyn that would pass Democrats' test as not being gun provisions. Still, the bill - sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) - faces an uphill climb to make it to the Senate floor before the elections.
The Senate could leave town until November soon after passing a continuing resolution to fund the government later this month.
Gionfriddo said lawmakers told him the bill could come up in the lame-duck session after the elections if there is not enough time to get it done this month.
The Senate's mental health bill, a companion measure to what has already passed the House, has long been delayed amid a dispute over the thorny politics of guns.
Cornyn has been looking to attach gun-related language, already part of his own broader mental health bill, that would require a full judicial hearing to ban someone from buying guns due to mental illness.
Democrats warned the language would make it easier for mentally ill people to get guns.
Cornyn has said that he is willing to be flexible, though, and has been offering alternative language that could smooth the way for a deal.
Some of Cornyn's language has been focused on protecting the due process gun rights of veterans who might be mentally ill.
"We're working on compromise language that would address concerns while protecting patients' rights for law-abiding veterans," a Cornyn aide said.
One fear was that if Republicans added anything relating to guns, Democrats would counter with their own language focused on gun control.
But in a meeting Thursday, Gionfriddo said: "Sen. Schumer told us directly that if the Republicans aren't going to go down that road, neither are the Democrats." The Senate mental health bill is not as sweeping as legislation that was originally introduced in the House, but it seeks to improve coordination of mental health programs and authorizes grants for topics like integrating physical and mental health services.
It also seeks to strengthen enforcement of "parity" laws that require that insurance companies cover mental health services just as much as they cover physical health services.