AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A bipartisan push for a pilot drug needle exchange program in Texas narrowly failed Friday in the House, despite some Republicans who invoked late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and pleaded with their fellow GOP members not to fear political reprisals.
The bill would have authorized seven large Texas counties to launch programs that give drug users clean needles in exchange for dirty ones. Health experts say those efforts reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis while forcing addicts to interact with counselors who could steer them off drugs.
Republican state Rep. John Davis, who co-sponsored the bill, tried appealing to other conservatives by making arguments involving faith, finances and public health. Trying to seal the deal, Davis told the House that even Thatcher, who led Britain's Conservative Party to three election victories and came to be known as the "Iron Lady," supported needle exchanges.
"If it's good enough for Margaret Thatcher, it's good enough for me," Davis said.
Ultimately, it wasn't good enough for the Republican-controlled House. After a squeaker of 69-67, a vote recount put the final margin of defeat at 70-63.
Few Republicans lined up to speak out against the bill on the House floor. But outside the Capitol, conservative activists framed the program as tantamount to the government enabling drug users. Opponents also questioned the efficacy of needle exchanges.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the conservative group Empower Texans, which scores Republicans on their records, tweeted shortly before the vote: "(House GOP) about to vote to give free needles to drug users?! Yep. That'll be on the Index. Oppose."
Republican state Rep. Susan King tried dissuading her colleagues from what she described as voting for politics over policy.
"If you vote for this, you're afraid the mailer will come," she said.
The bill would have established pilot needle exchange programs in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Nueces, Travis and Webb counties. Hospitals and health groups were among those who supported the proposal as it advanced to the House floor.
Nearly 70,000 people in Texas are known to have HIV, according to the Department of State Health Services. The agency found that about 7 percent of new HIV diagnoses are due to injection-drug use.