Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jeff Merkley do not usually agree on much — the GOP leader has even taken to endorsing the Oregon Democrat's Republican opponent. But there is one area where their interests curiously, at least on the surface, intersect.
Hemp — pot's industrial, THC-sapped cousin, often used to make rope — has bound McConnell and Merkley together over policy.
Merkley and McConnell found themselves backing an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill on Thursday that would reinforce a provision of the farm bill. Since industrial hemp is a federally controlled substance but legal in some states, including Oregon and Kentucky, the amendment seeks to prevent federal funds from being used to undermine the language in the farm bill that allowed colleges and universities to study the substance.
The amendment passed the Appropriations Committee 22-8 and suggests that finding agreement among politically opposite members is possible when their home-state interests are at stake.
McConnell has more than a passing interest in the issue. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture, operating under a provision inserted into this year's farm bill by McConnell, suddenly found its research stopped when the Drug Enforcement Administration seized the agency's hemp seeds at an airport. DEA has since backed down, but the Commerce, Justice, Science amendment would reinforce the message that no federal funds can be used to undercut the farm bill provision allowing hemp research.
Identical language was passed in a House version of the spending bill last week, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. The House bill also has wording to block federal interference with state-legalized medical marijuana activities — but the Senate Appropriations panel Thursday did not adopt language pertaining to that.
McConnell was absent from Thursday's markup, but he issued a statement about the provision: "This measure will help prevent our legal hemp seeds secured by state Departments of Agriculture and used for legal pilot programs from being blocked by DEA or other federal agencies in the future. These legal pilot programs authorized by my legislation could help boost our state's economy and lead to future jobs."
Merkley made the case that the U.S. is the only country that prohibits the growing of industrial hemp and that the substance has many uses, from hand lotion to food.
Two senators spoke against the amendment. Ranking member Richard Shelby of Alabama argued that hemp was a federally banned substance, and Dianne Feinstein of California worried that the amendment was redundant, given the farm bill language. She also said the measure could complicate DEA's job.
The McConnell-Merkley alliance, while brief, is noteworthy because of how involved McConnell has been in backing Monica Wehby, Merkley's opponent in Oregon. During a rally ahead of his state's primary in Kentucky, McConnell praised Wehby's candidacy, and his leadership PAC, the Bluegrass Committee, has donated $5,000 to her campaign.
Aside from their political differences, the senators are also on opposite sides of a number of policy issues. Merkley firmly supports the Affordable Care Act, while McConnell famously pledged to repeal the law "root and branch."
Merkley was also one of the leading Democrats pressing Majority Leader Harry Reid to change the Senate rule to make it easier for President Obama's nominees to be confirmed. McConnell, on the other hand, has decried the so-called nuclear option as a blight on the Senate's record.
But on hemp, the senators' views coincide. McConnell has been a champion of loosening regulations on industrial hemp, praising the inclusion of such a provision in the farm bill earlier in this Congress. Merkley, too, has backed other industrial hemp legislation in the past, such as the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2011.
That industrial hemp comes from cannabis, the same plant that produces marijuana, was not lost on some of the senators. Democrat Jon Tester of Montana supported the amendment.
"This isn't the stuff you smoke," he said. "You smoke this, you gotta smoke 80 pounds."
Drawing laughter from the committee, Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski pointed out Tester seemed to have expert knowledge of the subject.
The issue came up as the Senate begins to mark up the 12 spending bills, with the full Senate expected to consider the measures later this month and during two weeks in July.
The committee also considered the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill, with members backing an amendment from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine aimed at correcting what she views as an unintended consequence of trucking regulations.
Compared to the partisan sniping over amendments and filibusters that frequently characterize debate on the floor, the appropriations process at the committee level has been collegial, by and large. Passage of a two-year budget that set spending levels aided that process, senators have said.