Looming over the District’s historic decision this month to legalize marijuana has been another mandate that voters delivered on Election Day: A Republican majority on Capitol Hill with the power to interfere with the measure when it goes to Congress for review.
But congressional Republicans appear to have other things on their minds.
“To be honest, that’s pretty far down my list of priorities,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was maneuvering late last week to force a vote on U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.
“I haven’t given it one thought,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who CNN reported Friday was mapping out a presidential run.
“Focused on other things,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will lead Senate oversight of the country’s military campaigns in Iraq and Syria when Republicans regain control of the chamber in January for the first time in seven years.
Republicans also are focused on making good on promises for early battles with President Obama on immigration and to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. In all, in the first days of Congress’s return to Capitol Hill since the election, there appeared to be little to no appetite for Republicans to pile on the vexing issue of marijuana legalization.
In fact, Republican congressional leaders may keep marijuana off their plate in the new year by design, said Cully Stimson, a senior legal fellow who tracks the issue for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Nationwide, 23 states allow sales of marijuana for medical purposes; lawmakers in 18 states have stripped away jail time for possession, and four states, including red Alaska, have gone as far as to legalize pot. Gaining consensus among Republicans to upend a similar law in the District, Cully said, could force party leaders to spend political capital that they would like to use elsewhere. As the party sets its sights on retaking the White House in 2016, it also could expose a muddling rift within the GOP base between social conservatives and libertarians.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), celebrated in libertarian circles, said on Election Day that the D.C. measure was an issue for city voters to decide. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a favorite of family-values groups, has repeatedly blasted Obama for not enforcing federal drug laws.
Last week, as Republican leaders preached party unity and a need for teamwork to defeat Obama on broader issues, Paul and Cruz declined to comment on the D.C. marijuana measure.
“The preferred option may just be to not divide the Republican caucus on a divisive issue,” Stimson said. “Democrats and pro-pot advocates will work to cleave off libertarian-leaning Republicans. I could see [House Speaker John A.] Boehner . . . or [soon-to-be Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell saying, ‘We’re just not going to bring it up.’ I could see it playing out that way politically.”
Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said a brawl between conservative and libertarian factions within the GOP is inevitable later next year, when Congress must decide whether to reauthorize provisions of the Patriot Act that allow for domestic surveillance. “Do you really want to pick at that scab too early?”
Such political considerations seem poised to benefit the almost 7 in 10 D.C. voters who backed Initiative 71. The ballot measure that passed Nov. 4 legalizes possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in the nation’s capital. It also allows city residents to grow up to three mature plants at home.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he intends to codify the initiative into law and transmit it to Capitol Hill for review early in January.
That would start the clock ticking on a 30- to 60-day review period.
Unless Congress acts to block it during that window, marijuana legalization would then become law. Such a block has happened only three times in 40 years, and it would require not only the House and Senate to both pass a bill, but the president to sign off on the congressional measure halting the District’s law.
What is more likely is that conservative lawmakers will continue to try to subvert the D.C. law through annual federal spending measures, as they have with gun limits and abortion.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents Maryland’s Eastern Shore, succeeded over the summer in persuading fellow House Republicans to back a measure precluding the District from spending its own money to take any step weakening enforcement of federal marijuana laws.
That language remains part of an active House spending bill, but Senate Democrats have vowed not to accept it, and Obama has suggested he would veto a measure containing such language.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a nonvoting member of the House, said proponents will have to remain vigilant in coming weeks to make sure the amendment by Harris does not find its way into the final spending bill that Congress must pass by mid-December.
Even if it is kept out this year, the District’s marijuana law could be subject to another round of uncertainty next year during the congressional budget process — even before it takes effect.
D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said she wants the effective date of the District’s marijuana legalization to be delayed until city lawmakers settle on a regulatory framework to sell and tax the drug.
Such a scheme would also have to pass congressional review, pushing the likely date of the enactment of both marijuana measures into late 2015, and with first legal sales not likely before 2016.
That delayed timeline would almost certainly give Harris another chance next year to upend the measure before any pot is sold.
One Republican, however, joined Holmes Norton last week in urging Republicans to sidestep the issue.
“Wake up!” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) at a Capitol Hill news conference, flanked by lawmakers from Oregon and Colorado, where voters have also legalized pot. “The American people are shifting on this issue.”
A former press secretary and speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher seized on the libertarian arguments for legalizing marijuana.
“The fundamental principles are individual liberty, which Republicans have always talked about; limited government, which Republicans have always talked about; the doctor-patient relationship, which, of course, we have been stressing a lot lately; and of course, states’ rights,” he said.
“To my fellow Republicans, this is going to help you politically,” Rohrabacher said. “If I can’t appeal to you on your philosophical nature, come on over for just raw politics — the numbers are going this way now.”