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D.C. Activists Make Last-Ditch Senate Lobbying Effort

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Activists are making a final lobbying push Friday to rally senators to oppose a rider targeting marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia that was attached to the year-end spending package "cromnibus."  

"As the attention moves to the Senate, it is important that supporters of D.C. democracy let senators know that we will not accept an act by Congress that reverses the will of the people," DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry wrote in an email to supporters. Perry was referring to a rider that could block an initiative passed by nearly two-thirds of D.C. voters in November, which legalizes possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. Perry encouraged supporters to phone senators, urging them to oppose the spending package, and to join activists in the Senate gallery for the "cromnibus" vote. However, the Senate still has to clear some procedural hurdles before scheduling a vote on the bill.  

A rider that could block legalization from moving forward was attached to the spending package that narrowly passed the House Thursday night. After the rider was attached Tuesday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., argued that the rider's language could be construed to uphold legalization, but that interpretation is still up for debate .  

So, marijuana and D.C. autonomy activists are busy lobbying the Senate to strike the rider or vote against the entire spending package. Earlier this week, activists staged a sit-in at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office, urging the Nevada Democrat to remove the rider from the bill.  

Calls to remove the rider were echoed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. In a statement posted Thursday morning and sent in his newsletter Friday morning, Mendelson said, "I call upon the leadership in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to live up to the important ideal of self-determination and self-government, remove this unjust rider, and instead focus on giving District residents the same rights and responsibilities as the citizens of the 50 states."  

D.C. activists are also still hoping the rider is removed.  But, since the bill already passed the House, striking the language is a near impossibility.  

"We will continue to push to change the bill, but we realize that is unlikely," DC Vote spokesman James Jone wrote in an email. "In that event, we are calling for a no vote."  

Reid spokesman Adam Jentelson acknowledged that, at this point, the bill cannot be changed, because doing so would require unanimous consent of the entire Senate or a vote by a supermajority.  

"As [Reid] has said, the District should be allowed to govern itself," Jentelson wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call Friday. "[We] respectfully point out that barring unanimous consent or a supermajority, the only other option is to shut down the government and Sen. Reid is unwilling to do that, since it would be bad for residents of Nevada, the District in particular and the country as a whole."  

With the possibility of removing the rider extremely unlikely, activists are also lobbying senators to vote against the spending package. And they could find allies in the Senate like Cory Booker, who supports D.C. autonomy and also objects to other riders in the bill.  

The New Jersey Democrat gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Thursday and pointed to the marijuana rider as a reason to oppose the s0-called cromnibus.  

"When the people of the city come together and decide to try a different way forward, should we not honor their results? Should we not respect their self determination as we do in other states?" Booker asked. "This provision in this omnibus undermining the democratic will of the District of Columbia, these great Americans, should be taken out.”  

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also said Tuesday that he would not support the spending package , and said he would object to any rider affecting the District's marijuana policy.  

But with a government shutdown imminent, Reid is urging his members to pass the spending package. Should the rider pass and be signed by the president, city officials will have to grapple with the different interpretations of the rider to figure out the next steps for marijuana legalization.  

Though Norton's interpretation of the rider's effect is shared by some top House Democrats and marijuana activists, D.C. officials have yet to take a firm position on how the rider will affect the District.  

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