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Texas’ Henry Cuellar one of two Democrats to vote against landmark marijuana legalization bill

Manuel Balce Ceneta
FILE - Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks about the United States-Mexico border during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 30, 2021. The 2022 midterm election season opens Tuesday, March 1, in Texas. Cuellar is facing a progressive challenger just weeks after FBI agents raided his home.

The bill faces stiff headwinds in the Senate, where it would require 60 votes to pass. A similar measure the House passed in 2020 failed in the upper chamber.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from Laredo, broke with his party to vote against a landmark marijuana legalization bill on Friday that passed in the House. Only one other Democrat voted against it.

Cuellar, who is currently in a fierce runoff for his 10th term against progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros, has long infuriated progressive Democrats with his conservative positions on many social issues. The Laredo politician opposes abortion and was the lone Democrat to vote against federal abortion rights legislation last fall.

Cuellar’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill — named the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act — removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances and eliminates criminal penalties for people who possess, manufacture and distribute the drug. It also prohibits the denial of federal benefits and protections to people with marijuana-related conduct or offenses.

The bill would also establish a process to expunge from people’s records non-violent cannabis crimes. Many Democrats — especially progressives — have long argued those arrests disproportionately affect people of color and low-income communities.

The 220-204 vote included all Texas representatives besides Cuellar voting along party lines. One other Democrat, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, also voted against the bill. Three Republicans out of 209 voted with Democrats to pass the bill.

The legislation has bleak odds to become law. It now heads to the evenly-divided Senate and would need significant Republican support to receive the 60 votes necessary to pass. A similar bill passed the Democratic-controlled House in Dec. 2020 but stalled in the upper chamber.

Cuellar is headed into a late-May runoff election with Cisneros after he just missed the majority threshold necessary to win his March primary outright. Outside the Democratic primary, Republicans are on the offensive in South Texas and are hoping to flip several blue seats — including Cuellar’s — in the November election.

"It is shameful that, in 2022, Henry Cuellar is still siding with Republicans to criminalize marijuana," Cisneros said in an emailed statement. "As an immigration attorney, I've seen firsthand how the War on Drugs and our criminal system disproportionately punishes Black and brown people in America. I’ve seen how criminalization has led to torn families, deportations, and loss of jobs and housing."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who on Thursday spoke in support of the bill at her weekly press conference, said she still supports Cuellar during a visit to Austin in late March.

The congressman is also embroiled in an ongoing FBI investigation after the agency raided his house in January.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at