House Democrats’ plan to vote on legislation decriminalizing marijuana before the November election went up in smoke Thursday, as leadership decided to postpone consideration of the measure amid concerns about the political optics.
Some of the more moderate Democrats in the caucus, including ones considered vulnerable for re-election in November, had expressed reservation about voting on the marijuana bill this month when Congress still had not passed another coronavirus relief package.
“Right now, the House is focused relentlessly on securing agreement to stave off a damaging government shutdown and continuing to do its job addressing the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a statement. “Later this autumn, the House will pass the MORE Act with strong support as yet another crucial step toward making our justice system fair for all Americans.”
The MORE Act is the shorthand name for the bill, titled the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. The measure, which the Judiciary Committee reported out last November on a 24-10 vote, would remove cannabis from any federal references to controlled substances and provide a process for expunging marijuana-related convictions. Advocates for the legislation say it would help correct years of policy that resulted in mass criminalization and incarceration that disproportionately affected minority populations.
“The MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform,” Hoyer said.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the vote is now expected during the lame-duck session after the election, which is currently scheduled to run Nov. 16 through Dec. 10 with a week-long break for Thanksgiving.
While the New York Democrat said he would have preferred the vote not to have been postponed, he admitted, “I’m not sure makes much practical difference.”
Nadler said most of the concerns he heard from colleagues were about the timing of the vote, not the substance of the bill.
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida said the vote was postponed “because we still have to stay laser-like focused on the COVID package.” While Murphy co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally minded moderates, she said there was a broad swath of Democrats across the broader caucus who wanted to keep the attention on coronavirus relief.
A senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing of the caucus told CQ Roll Call earlier this week that most of the concerns were about voting on the bill before the election, especially without Congress acting on further coronavirus relief.
Republicans attacks on Democrats arguing they’re against law and order have had some impact in vulnerable members’ districts and members didn’t want to give the GOP further fuel, the aide said.
But some members also had policy concerns about the bill, thinking it went too far beyond just decriminalizing marijuana, the aide said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive voice in the party, said she doesn’t get the argument over delaying the marijuana measure until after a coronavirus relief vote since the House already passed a $3.4 trillion aid package in May.
“I feel like the impulse to delay the expungement of people’s records is a fear-based response to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party,” the New York Democrat said, referring to the Senate majority leader. “And I personally don’t think that we should be governing that way.”
Democrats should be “unapologetic” about their agenda, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“Why is it that the one racial justice bill is the one that being singled out for postponement?” she said. “I think that’s wrong.”