Lawmakers are facing a rapidly closing window to get key marijuana legislation across the finish line in the lame-duck session.
Despite fetching broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate, opposition from GOP leadership and a tightening timeline is chipping away at the bill’s chances of passage.
The measure, called the SAFE Banking Act, would undo federal restrictions that discourage banks and other financial institutions from offering services to legally operating cannabis businesses.
Supporters say the bill is desperately needed to crack down on persistent robberies of cannabis businesses, which are forced to carry huge amounts of cash, as well as make it easier for those companies to secure loans at reasonable rates.
But with little legislative time left on the calendar, supporters of the bill, which has passed the House seven times, are divided over how to pass it before January. And they fear it’s even less likely to pass in a divided Congress.
“We still got amendments on the floor. We still got a continuing resolution,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has also been leading efforts pushing the bill in the upper chamber, told The Hill on Wednesday. “We may have an omnibus. Not giving up on this Congress.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a lead negotiator for the bill, told The Hill on Tuesday that he’s hopeful the measure will be attached to a potential government funding omnibus that members on both sides want to see pass before year’s end.
“We’ve got nine [GOP] co-sponsors and probably some other Republicans who support it that aren’t on the bill. So, there’s some support for it,” Daines said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed efforts to link the bill to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – which many Republicans, including the banking bill’s cosponsors, agreed with.
“We get a lot of bad legislation when we do that, and the bad outweighs the good,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), one of the co-sponsors for the marijuana banking bill, told The Hill. “So, I don’t want it on the omnibus, and I don’t want non-defense items hooked to the NDAA.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D), another co-sponsor, told The Hill that he’s hopeful to see the bill finally pass in the coming weeks, but added it’s “hard for me to see a path this year.”
“We’re gonna have to spend some time, I think, just talking to people, and some people don’t have to come around. You know, you don’t need unanimity,” Cramer said, acknowledging “just the subject matter itself” makes some members “very uncomfortable.”
Though the bill has Republican backers even outside those co-sponsoring the measure, there is still pushback within the caucus, party members say. Among the loudest has been McConnell, who this week knocked the bill as a measure that aims to make “our financial system more sympathetic to illegal drugs.”
“I’m for the SAFE Banking Act, but there’s a lot of resistance in our conference and it’s come up in two different meetings this week,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is retiring at the end of the year, told The Hill, “and, I’m not sure how close to evenly divided we are, but we’re pretty divided.”
Blunt, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also cast doubt on the chances of the bill being attached to any omnibus this month, saying it’s up to the “final negotiators to decide if it costs votes on the package are not.”
Pressed about how McConnell’s support impacts his push for the marijuana banking bill to pass in the current congressional session, Daines said he thinks McConnell is “listening and we’re gonna see where it all goes here in the next couple of weeks.”
The Department of Justice created another hurdle for the SAFE Banking Act when it released a memo Friday saying the bill might need to undergo technical changes so that it doesn’t complicate investigations into drug crimes.
Some Republicans have punted blame to the other side of the aisle for not bringing up the bill sooner.
The bill was included in last year’s House-passed NDAA, but Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) stripped it out because it didn’t include any measures to address damage done to minority communities by the war on drugs.
President Biden in October pardoned those with simple marijuana convictions, but the order will only apply to a few thousand people who were convicted with federal charges.
As the vast majority of marijuana convictions come at the state level, Democrats want to combine SAFE Banking with the HOPE Act, a bipartisan proposal that would incentivize states to expunge cannabis convictions.
Meanwhile, Republicans want to include the GRAM Act, which would allow individuals with a cannabis conviction in weed-legal states to purchase firearms.
The cannabis industry is urging Congress to pass SAFE Banking in the lame duck session, arguing that while it enjoys substantial GOP support, Republican leaders would not prioritize its passage after the House flips to Republican control.
“We remain optimistic that we’ll see cannabis reforms appear in another legislative vehicle in the coming weeks,” U.S. Cannabis Council CEO Khadijah Tribble said in a statement.
The banking industry is also lobbying for the bill. The Independent Community Bankers of America commissioned a Morning Consult poll showing that nearly two-thirds of voters support allowing cannabis businesses to access banking services in weed-legal states.
“This legislation enjoys strong, bipartisan support, would resolve a conflict between state and federal law, and addresses a critical public safety concern. We urge its enactment without further delay,” read a recent letter to Senate leaders from the community bankers’ group and 44 state banking associations.