WASHINGTON — The Trump administration finally crossed the line for some members of Congress this week, provoking bipartisan umbrage and accompanying pledges to hold top officials accountable.
Many thought the day had been far too long in coming. Few thought the galvanizing issue would be weed.
Both Republicans and Democrats reacted with dismay and howls of betrayal to the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to renew tough federal enforcement of marijuana laws, illustrating the growing power both politically and economically of the emerging industry.
“I am obligated to the people of Colorado to take all steps necessary to protect the state of Colorado and their rights,” said Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a conservative member of the Republican leadership who has rarely broken with the Trump White House.
Mr. Gardner said he had been assured by both President Trump and Mr. Sessions before voting for the attorney general’s confirmation that backtracking on marijuana would not be a focus of the administration. The senator seemed flabbergasted by what amounted to a federal assault on the expanding $1 billion legal pot business approved by voters in Colorado, and he threatened to try to block all Justice Department nominees until Mr. Sessions backed off.
He was not the only unhappy Republican. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement that she had repeatedly discouraged Mr. Sessions from taking action on marijuana, a move that she called regrettable and disruptive.
Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a leading Trump ally in the House, said the decision would deny relief to suffering cancer patients, including children. He said the move by Mr. Sessions was “heartless and cold, and shows his desire to pursue an antiquated, disproven dogma instead of the will of the American people. He should focus his energies on prosecuting criminals, not patients.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader whose state began allowing the sale of recreational marijuana this week, also pointed to the strong national sentiment for legalization shown in votes around the country in recent years.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process under which majorities of voters in California and in states across the nation supported decriminalization at the ballot box,” she said. “Yet again, Republicans expose their utter hypocrisy in paying lip service to states’ rights while trampling over laws they personally dislike.”
She and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said they would try to use a pending spending package to prevent Mr. Sessions from following through on the plan to overturn an Obama-era policy that made marijuana prohibition a low priority for law enforcement. Mr. Leahy noted that such a provision had previously passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with support from both parties.
The pushback was not the only bipartisan resistance coming in the middle of the furor surrounding Mr. Trump’s emphatic break with his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, in the aftermath of his reported comments in a new book about the presidency. An Interior Department plan to open much of the nation’s coastline to new oil exploration also drew strong opposition from some Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a likely candidate for the Senate this year.
The new marijuana policy and the oil drilling effort could present political peril for Republicans in Colorado and states along both coasts in some of the same locales where resentment to the new tax plan has already surfaced. Politicians in both parties from Florida up the Eastern Seaboard have fought expanded oil exploration for decades, responding to strong public opinion in those states.
Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida and a longtime opponent of offshore drilling who could be facing off against Mr. Scott in a high-profile Senate contest, immediately jumped on the issue.
“This plan is an assault on Florida’s economy, our national security, the will of the public and the environment,” Mr. Nelson said. “This proposal defies all common sense, and I will do everything I can to defeat it.”
At the White House, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the administration did not intend to start a fight with Mr. Scott but would not shy away from one either.
“Just because we may differ on issues from time to time doesn’t mean that we can’t still have an incredibly strong and good relationship,” she said. “We’ll continue those conversations with him and hopefully all come to an agreement.”
As for the president’s evolution on marijuana, Ms. Sanders said Mr. Trump “believes in enforcing federal law. That would be his top priority, and that is regardless of what the topic is.”
When it comes to marijuana, Mr. Gardner, as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as a senator from Colorado, is well versed in its politics. Like other leading state politicians, he personally opposed the proposal to legalize the substance but now sees his role as sticking up for his state’s law and industry. He will no doubt face criticism if he does not now follow through. He pointedly and repeatedly asked on Thursday what had changed since Mr. Trump said during his campaign that he considered marijuana enforcement a state issue.
“The people of Colorado spoke — they spoke loudly,” Mr. Gardner said on the Senate floor. “And I believe if the same question were asked today, they would have even more support for the decision they made back several years ago. I agree with President Trump, that this decision should be left up to the people of Colorado.”
Mr. Sessions has long considered marijuana dangerous. And he has not been reluctant to break with his Republican colleagues on other issues that had bipartisan backing, notably a criminal justice overhaul. His stiff opposition to that plan helped scuttle it in the Senate in 2016 and dimmed its future when he moved over to the Justice Department.
But the legalization of marijuana has proved to be a job-creating, tourist-attracting, vote-getting success in certain states, with more entertaining the idea. The attorney general and the president may find resistance to their pot policy to be much more potent than they anticipated.
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