While the edict is designed to give doctors greater freedom in prescribing pain medication, critics call it a wolf in sheep's clothing because it puts the federal government, not the states, in charge of monitoring how doctors prescribe drugs, reports CBS News Correspondent Diana Olick.
The Pain Relief Promotion Act was passed with substantial bipartisan support, 271-156, with a few dozen crossing party lines in either direction. The Senate is likely to take up companion legislation before Congress adjourns this November.
The bill would amend the 1970 Controlled Substances Act to make clear that narcotics cannot be used to cause death, no matter what a state law says. The drugs can be prescribed for the purpose of controlling pain, even if the medication hastens death by depressing respiration.
Right-to-Life Republicans are calling this a victory. Sponsors, led by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, argued that the bill would promote better pain management while preventing doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia.
During the often-emotional debate, Hyde said the Oregon law devalues human life in a way that threatens the elderly, the uninsured, the disabled and the "unwanted." He said it transforms doctors into "messengers of death."
Opponents, including some 10 people who oppose assisted-suicide but disagreed with Hyde's approach, said the bill would have the opposite effect. They said it would deter aggressive treatment of pain by making doctors fear that they could end up in jail for prescribing potent medications.
They objected to allowing Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who have no medical training, to review how a doctor prescribes painkillers.
The bill does not explicitly repeal Oregon's assisted suicide law, but basically renders it meaningless by preventing doctors from prescribing the drugs.
Oregon in 1994 became the first state to enact an assisted-suicide law, after a voter referendum. It was held up in a court battle but after an appeals court ruling and a second, stronger voter referendum, it went into effect in November 1997.
The Oregon law permits physician-assisted suicide by terminally-ill people who are judged mentally competent and whose doctors give them less than six months to live.
As for a potential presidential veto, the administration says President Clinton is personally opposed to assisted suicide, but has expressed other concerns over parts of this bill.