(This story has been corrected to note that Sen. Steve Daines is from Montana.)
With midterm elections around the corner and the U.S. Congress in a rush to clear up unfinished business, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is growing increasingly frustrated that Senate Democrats continue rejecting the SAFE Banking Act already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Moreover, the Senate has yet to hold a vote on the SAFE Banking Act – or any other marijuana reform proposal – that could pave the way for House-Senate negotiations.
The head of the Senate Banking Committee, meanwhile, says his hands are tied by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, even as the clock ticks toward November’s midterm elections.
In short, the cannabis banking bill appears to have hit yet another wall, and odds are long that it will reach President Joe Biden’s desk this year.
Still, some lawmakers are fighting to get it passed. And House lawmakers, in particular, are demanding action from their Senate counterparts.
“The frustration’s been there for a long time. They’ve got to figure out what it is they want and they can pass. Those two things aren’t necessarily the same thing, so they’ve just got to talk among themselves – Democrats and Republicans – over there,” U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Colorado Democrat, told MJBizDaily.
Perlmutter – the lead House sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act – is again leading his Democratic colleagues on a two-path solution:
- He’s working to include the measure allowing cannabis businesses to access the U.S. banking system as an amendment to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the House passed on Thursday. The reform would enable financial institutions to serve state-legal marijuana businesses without fear of punishment.
- But Perlmutter is also waiting to see Schumer’s long promised – and perpetually delayed – marijuana reform bill, which is expected to include criminal justice elements, such as expunging past cannabis convictions. Some media reports suggest the bill could be introduced this week.
House members have been patient with Senate Democrats all year.
But they’re now increasing pressure on the upper chamber to pass anything marijuana-related so the two bodies can work out their differences in a formal conference committee.
“They’ve got a stand-alone bill in the (Senate) Banking Committee right now. That may end up being the center for a broader – but not as broad as what they’ve been talking about – bill,” Perlmutter continued.
He added that “the next step is to keep it on the NDAA.”
The House has now passed the SAFE Banking Act seven times – either as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation, or on its own.
The Senate Banking Committee currently has the stand-alone bill, which Perlmutter says senators must now act on.
“They can start amending things onto it … or they can start something new and send it back to us. But they’ve got to start moving,” Perlmutter said.
“They’ll have at least two vehicles to work with: the NDAA or the stand-alone (SAFE Banking Act) to see what they can get. Because I’m pretty sure in the House, whatever they can do, we certainly can do.”
Status quo in the Senate
While there continues to be a flurry of movement on cannabis measures in the House – lawmakers are also using the NDAA to try to expand drug studies and allow veterans access to cannabis – nothing has changed in the Senate.
“No update at all,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and chair of the Senate Banking Committee, told MJBizDaily last week.
“I don’t know why it is. They know where we’ve got to go with this – sentencing reform, too.”
A historic high of nine Senate Republicans cosponsored the SAFE Banking Act this session.
With state, local, and community banks nationwide now lobbying lawmakers on the measure, some skeptical Democrats say they know why so many of their Republican colleagues are at the table.
“The banks have a lot of influence with Republicans. I’ll just leave it at that,” Brown said.
So far, Brown and Senate Democratic leaders haven’t budged from the red line they drew in the sand at the start of this Congress: “If the people demanding SAFE Banking want that bill, they’ve got to come to terms with the sentencing reform,” Brown continued.
“I can’t speak for Schumer, but it’s been his line. It’s been my line from the word go.”
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Banking chair on the sidelines
Even though he chairs the Senate Banking Committee, Brown says he’s now on the sidelines and Schumer is in the driver’s seat.
“It’s now on (a) leadership level of negotiations, so it beats me why they can’t come to that,” Brown said, even as he contends the House-passed SAFE Banking Act still isn’t good enough.
Schumer was out of the office last week, after contracting COVID over the July 4th holiday, and it’s unclear if he conducted any negotiations on SAFE Banking from his home in Brooklyn.
It’s also unclear who he’s been negotiating with, because Senate Republicans continue to say Brown and Schumer’s red line is a nonstarter, and they’ll lose their support if the SAFE Banking Act gets expanded to become a criminal justice bill.
“The SAFE Banking Act is exactly what it says: This is a way to enable cannabis businesses to have access to our bank system. If you just start adding these other provisions, we’re not going to get it passed,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana – the lead Republican SAFE sponsor in the Senate – told MJBizDaily.
The problem for Schumer and Brown is that many Senate Democrats, especially those who represent states that legalized marijuana, want the Senate to simply sign off on the House-passed SAFE Banking Act.
Senators demand action
In May, 19 Democratic and nine GOP senators wrote a letter to Schumer and other party leaders urging the Senate to approve the House banking measure.
“It’s absolutely essential. This is a public safety issue,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, told MJBizDaily earlier this summer. “The House has passed it – we cannot wait anymore.”
Murray signed onto the letter asking Schumer to relent after a string of murders at dispensaries in her state.
Safety is also a concern elsewhere, which is why SAFE was passed with the support of 321 House members earlier in this congressional session, including 106 Republicans.
While Senate Democrats continue demanding the expungement of past cannabis convictions be included in the measure, House Democrats say their initial work is done on the SAFE Banking Act, and that sentencing reform should be taken up separately.
U.S. Rep. and Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, says she and her colleagues are waiting on Senate action.
She indicated that House Democrats would be prepared to support criminal justice provisions if the Senate passed its own version of the SAFE Banking Act and the two sides entered negotiations in a conference committee.
“If we go to conference, I’m sure we would try,” Lee said.
But, she added, “We can’t go to conference yet, so they’ve got to pass something.”
Clock ticking ahead of midterms
Still, even as key Senate Democrats say they can’t support the House measure, they know the clock is winding down and they see a need to pass SAFE by the end of this year.
Otherwise, they fear a Republican-led Congress after November’s midterm elections will once again bury the measure.
Schumer teamed with Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden to craft a new, sweeping marijuana decriminalization measure, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which has yet to be introduced.
Booker says their measure is still coming, and they hope it can be melded into an expanded SAFE Act.
“We’re about to drop our bill – I think this month, but obviously Schumer has gotten sick so everything’s been a little scrambled by that,” the New Jersey Democrat told MJBizDaily last week.
“I believe in our bill, but I’m open to negotiating a way to get this urgently needed bill, SAFE Banking, over the line.”
With many polls foreshadowing big GOP wins this November, Booker says there’s now more incentive than ever for Congress to pass marijuana reform this session.
“I believe it has to happen this year,” Booker said. “If the House shifts, the Senate shifts, it’s not as likely that a bill on marijuana will be brought up.”
Even with mounting pressure for the Senate to act, Booker – along with Schumer and a powerful few other Senate Democrats – won’t cave on their demand that the measure right some of the wrongs wrought by decades of the war on drugs.
“Again, I just want to make sure that some of the other parts of it, like restorative justice that we’ve been talking about now for months, get done,” Booker said.