WASHINGTON — A broadly popular bill by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to outlaw synthetic recreational drugs across the nation has run into an increasingly common obstacle in the U.S. Senate: the objection of a single senator.
Klobuchar and two other senators backing similar measures took the unusual step of taking to the Senate floor Wednesday to publicly denounce a “hold” placed on their bills by freshman Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, the son of GOP presidential contender Ron Paul.
“Let’s hear what the objections are, and then pass these bills,” said Klobuchar, who along with others, has been taking aim at a group of chemical compounds marketed as so-called bath salts, herbal incense and research chemicals.
Klobuchar was accompanied by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, who have authored companion bills in the Senate. All three bills have been blocked from coming up for a final vote.
Despite a bipartisan coalition for anti-drug legislation — a House version passed by a wide margin in December — Klobuchar and her allies find themselves stymied by Paul, who by Senate tradition can single-handedly hold up legislation.
Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley said he believes “law enforcement of most drug laws can and should be local and state issues.”
Longtime congressional watchers say the tactic has been used with increasing frequency in recent years, particularly by Paul, a libertarian Republican who, like his father, is unafraid of challenging the Washington establishment.
Law enforcement officials across the country have been calling for congressional action to combat the growing epidemic of synthetic party drugs like 2C-E.
A Star Tribune investigation found that the drugs are often marketed as “legal” alternatives to illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. But they can have equally devastating consequences; 2C-E is believed to be responsible for the death of a 19-year-old man in Blaine, Minn., last year.
While the legislation has wide support in Congress, it also has its critics in civil liberties circles. One is U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who was among 82 Democrats and 16 Republicans who voted against the House bill. Ellison, as well as Paul, raised questions about the reach of federal drug laws and the exposure of low-level users, particularly minorities, to long prison terms.
Klobuchar said in an interview that if Paul has “philosophical objections” to her synthetic drug bill he should not hold up a debate and vote. “We feel he should be able to speak to that and vote against it if he wants,” she said. “But what we’d like to get from him, and hope we can get, is an agreement to simply have a set time for debate … and then have a vote.”
Schumer said he understands the right of a single senator to block a bill in the Senate, but not to foreclose debate. “Let’s see if he can win people over to his point of view,” he said.
Their predicament stems from the Senate tradition of “unanimous consent,” which permits even a single senator to raise objections and push for a filibuster. Though Senate leaders can still bring the legislation up for a vote, it takes longer and endangers protocol.