Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the Senate floor on Wednesday, gloating about how Republicans managed to keep marijuana banking reform out of a large-scale defense bill that was released on Tuesday night. And he said the “lesson must carry over” to forthcoming omnibus appropriations legislation that some lawmakers are now looking at as an alternative way to enact the cannabis reform.
Separately, a Democratic House member said on Wednesday that the fact that cannabis banking wasn’t included in NDAA meant that “at least” one Democratic senator “had a problem” with the reform as well.
Advocates and pro-reform lawmakers have expressed serious disappointment about the setback, as there were strong hopes that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would serve as the legislative vehicle to finally enact the SAFE Banking Act, which has passed in the House seven times.
McConnell previewed his interest in blocking the effort earlier this week, describing the cannabis provision as one of the “pet priorities” of Democrats that should be kept out of the defense legislation.
His efforts evidently proved fruitful, and he took a victory lap on the Senate floor on Wednesday, while also signaling that he will seek to similarly derail any future attempts to add what he considers non-germane items to omnibus appropriations legislation.
“Just as Republicans insisted, just as our service members deserve, this NDAA is not getting dragged down by unrelated liberal nonsense,” McConnell said. “Good smart policies were kept in and unrelated nonsense like easier financing for illegal drugs was kept out.”
“I’m glad this Democrat-led Congress finally realized that defending America is a basic governing duty. It’s not some Republican priority that Democrats can demand unrelated goodies to be wheeled into it,” he said. “Neither party—let alone a sitting president’s party— can ever have the mindset that they need to be goaded or bartered into supporting our troops.”
Importantly, he also implied that Republicans will be taking a similar approach to prevent cannabis banking reform from being enacted through must-pass spending legislation that’s being eyed by supporters as an alternative vehicle for the lame duck session.
“We made it clear we wouldn’t be going down that road. Our Democratic colleagues finally accepted it,” the minority leader said. “Now that same lesson must carry over into our subsequent conversations about government funding.”
The comments were made around the same time that SAFE Banking sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) spoke at a House Rules Committee meeting on NDAA, during which he said he will be immediately getting to work to attach the reform to the pending omnibus spending legislation—though he added that he’s lost sleep over recent setbacks and has “unrepeatable” things to say about the Senate over their inability to advance the bill.
“I’m not giving up on this darn thing yet,” the congressman, who is retiring at the end of this session, said, adding that he will need bicameral and bipartisan support “if we try to attach it to the appropriations bill.”
In a separate statement to Marijuana Moment after the meeting, the Perlmutter said that “though SAFE didn’t get done in the NDAA, we successfully elevated the issue and have everyone’s attention, so now we need to get it done.”
“There is time to do it,” he said.
Prior to the NDAA text being released, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reacted to McConnell’s criticism of putting marijuana banking in the defense bill.
“This is something, again, that’s had bipartisan support. We’ve been working with Republicans. It’s a priority for me,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “I’d like to get it done. We’ll try to discuss the best way to get it done.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) said during an interview on the The Thom Hartmann Program on Wednesday that NDAA’s exclusion of the SAFE Banking language from NDAA meant that there was at least one Democratic senator who dissented from the majority.
“If we can’t do something as minor and reasonable as that, having a bigger overhaul around the war on drugs” is not especially feasible, he said in response to a listener’s question about broader drug policy reform.
“From the Senate, what came over, they couldn’t even send over” cannabis banking, he said. “That means at least a Democratic senator had a problem with hat provision.”
When the host mused about who the senator might have been, Pocan simply smiled and did not answer.
While the omission of banking reform in NDAA has seriously disappointed advocates—and the fight seems to be brewing over enacting it through separate omnibus legislation—details have also been emerging this past week about the so-called SAFE Plus package that Schumer has been working on for months with bipartisan and bicameral offices.
The framework for that package, which could also be introduced and advanced as a standalone, is expected to center on the SAFE Banking Act as well as a separate bipartisan proposal to incentivize state-legal cannabis expungements.
Sources have been telling Marijuana Moment for the past several months that lawmakers have also been discussing adding to SAFE Plus language to protect Second Amendment rights for cannabis consumers by exempting people in legalized states from a federal restriction that bars any “unlawful user” of a controlled substance from owning a firearm. Politico reported on Monday that the current negotiated package does, in fact, include the Gun Rights And Marijuana Act (GRAM) Act.
Meanwhile, at the request of certain Senate offices, the Justice Department wrote a recently disclosed memo earlier this year outlining areas of the SAFE Banking Act that it identified as potentially problematic. While Senate sources said that those issues have been fixed in the latest language, some GOP senators arranged a meeting with DOJ on Monday to go over the concerns.
Those lawmakers who met with department officials were Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), according to Politico.
Schumer had said in October that Congress was getting “very close” to introducing and passing the marijuana banking and expungements bill, citing progress he’s made in discussions with a “bunch of Republican senators.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), meanwhile, said following the election that Democrats who want to enact cannabis reform must either do it “now” during the lame duck session or wait until “many years from now” when his party has a shot at controlling Congress again.
Booker previously opposed moving marijuana banking reform before Congress effectively ended prohibition with an eye toward equity. But he softened his position in recent months, becoming increasingly open to moving the incremental legislation.
For some advocates, support for the so-called “SAFE Plus” package will be largely contingent on the details of changes to the banking language, as they’re discontent with the current provisions that have passed the House in some form seven times now.
Specifically, they’d like to see the bill amended to provide funding for Minority Deposit Institutions (MDIs) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that lend commercial loans to minority-owned businesses.
They’re further called for changes to require banks that work with the cannabis industry to demonstrate non-discrimination in lending, as Supernova Women Executive Director Amber Senter wrote in a recent op-ed for Marijuana Moment.
These amendments align with some of the SAFE Banking Act recommendations that Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) outlined in a paper sent to legislative leaders in August.
The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), meanwhile, sent a letter to Senate leadership last week, calling for a floor vote on the SAFE Banking Act “without further delay” by the year’s end.
“This legislation enjoys strong, bipartisan support, would resolve a conflict between state and federal law, and addresses a critical public safety concern,” ICBA, which commissioned a poll demonstrating that support earlier this year, said. “We urge its enactment without further delay.”
Another poll released last week found that three in four American voters—including bipartisan majorities—support ending federal marijuana prohibition, expunging prior convictions and allowing banks to work with state-legal cannabis businesses.