A bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses could get a fair shot of advancing through the Senate next year, even if Republicans maintain control of the chamber.
While it remains to be seen if Democrats will be able to secure enough seats to reclaim the Senate in two Georgia runoffs in January, the GOP member expected to take helm of the Banking Committee if his party maintains a majority said recently that he’s open to the modest reform.
Asked by American Banker whether he’d be inclined to work with Democrats—particularly Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH)—on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) replied in the affirmative.
“I am open to working with my colleagues on how we could enable businesses that are operating legally in their respective states to be able to have ordinary banking services,” he said. “I think that’s something we should work on.”
The would-be chairman made similar remarks to Politico earlier this month, stating that he is “sympathetic to the idea that people who are involved in [the] cannabis industry—in an entirely legal fashion—ought to be able to have ordinary banking services.”
While Toomey has not embraced broad marijuana reforms such as legalization, he did praise a 2015 Obama administration move to ease some restrictions on cannabis research.
It’s worth noting that his latest comments were prompted by the banking-focused publication under the assumption that Brown would push for the legislation in his leadership position. But the Democrat signaled differently in an interview last week, saying that when it comes to the broader issue of marijuana, “I just don’t think that’s a major priority compared to so much else.”
Current Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) has previously expressed a willingness to put the cannabis banking bill to a vote in his panel, but it has yet to move since the House approved it last year. He said in 2019 that they were “looking to see whether we can thread the needle” on the legislation.
The chairman has called for certain revisions to the proposal, including some that industry stakeholders have described as untenable, such as making it so only marijuana businesses that cap THC content for their products at two percent would be eligible for banking services.
As currently written, the SAFE Banking Act would not impose such restrictions—and the Democratic-controlled House has approved it three times. The first time was as standalone legislation that cleared the chamber on a largely bipartisan basis. The next two times, it advanced as a provision of broad coronavirus relief packages.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also filed his own COVID-19 bill last month that contained the marijuana banking language, but that has not advanced.
When the House approved its coronavirus legislation with the SAFE Banking Act attached, it attracted controversy, with multiple Republican lawmakers and White House officials criticizing its inclusion and arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in particular has been a vocal opponent of the measure, though he’s largely focused his criticism on certain provisions of the SAFE Banking Act that require industry diversity reporting.
Democratic leaders in both chambers, however, have made clear that they’re willing to keep up the fight, and the House even highlighted the diversity component in a summary of its legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in July that she agrees that the banking measure is an appropriate component of the bill.
Also in July, bipartisan treasurers from 15 states and one territory sent a letter to congressional leadership, urging the inclusion of the SAFE Banking Act in any COVID-19 legislation that’s sent to the president’s desk. Following GOP attacks on the House proposal, a group of Democratic state treasurers renewed that call.
The fate of the banking bill in the Senate may rest on the outcome of the two runoff elections that will decide which party controls the chamber. But given Toomey’s comments in favor of taking up the issue—and Brown’s dismissive remarks about cannabis reform—it’s not clear which potential chairman might end up moving the bill faster if his party wins a majority.