Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Monday a news investigation about whether a bill he sponsored disarmed the Drug Enforcement Agency from going after drug companies was meant to smear President Trump's nominee for drug czar, who sponsored the bill on the House side.
"I think we need to be candid about what's going on here," Hatch said in floor remarks. "Opponents of the current administration are trying to derail the president's nominee to be head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Rep. Tom Marino, by mischaracterizing and trying to rewrite the history of a bill that he championed."
Hatch was responding to a Washington Post and CBS "60 Minutes" investigative piece about his 2016 bill, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which said Congress stripped the DEA of its ability to freeze suspicious prescription opioids from drug companies.
The sponsor of the House version of the bill, Marino, R-Penn., had pushed the legislation for years and both he and Hatch received campaign contributions from drug companies, according to the story.
The bill passed at a time when reports showed about 33,000 Americans died from opioids in a year, from both prescription opioids and their illegal, cheaper counterpart: heroin.
Hatch said former DEA employees had been interviewed for the news article who took "extremely hard line against drug companies" and were upset about DEA taking a more collaborative approach.
The legislation, he said, provided a balance by clarifying the DEA could no longer suspend narcotic shipments using a vague phrasing under former law that said the order can come only in times of "an imminent danger to the public health or safety."
DEA can now suspend shipments as long as they present "substantial likelihood of an immediate threat," meaning death, serious bodily harm, or abuse would otherwise occur. This would prevent people who have legitimate use for the drugs from being cut off, Hatch said, noting the legislation had been specifically approved by DEA and Department of Justice lawyers.
The Post article, Hatch said, "baldly asserts that Congress cut out DEA's legs from underneath it through a sinister conspiracy of deep-pocketed drug companies and their cunning allies in Congress. Nothing could be further from the truth."
"It does not explain that prior to the bill, DEA had basically carte blanche authority to impose this measure," he said. "It also does not explain that DEA has other enforcement tools available."
As a result of the report, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has called for Trump to rescind his offer for drug czar to Marino and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called for the bill to be repealed.
Both Manchin and McCaskill had voted in favor of passing the bill, which received unanimous support in the Senate and the House, and was signed into law by former President Barack Obama.
Hatch noted this in his remarks from the floor, asking, "Did the entire United States Congress decide to shield its eyes to the true sinister intent of this legislation?"
"Let's not pretend that DEA, both Houses of Congress, and the Obama White House all somehow wilted under Representative Marino's nefarious influences," he continued.
Hatch defended his record passing legislation to combat drug abuse and addiction during the four decades he has served in Congress.
"I am no patsy when it comes to drug abuse—prescription or otherwise," Hatch said. "And neither are my colleagues."