WASHINGTON ― The Senate approved a Republican-led effort rolling back the District of Columbia’s controversial criminal code overhaul on Wednesday, sending it to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has said that he intends to sign the rollback into law.
The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of overturning the district’s crime law: Thirty-three Democrats joined every Republican in doing so.
Wednesday’s passage of the disapproval resolution, authored by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), is the first time Congress has directly overturned a Washington, D.C., law in three decades. It’s also a stunning reversal for a Democratic Party that has repeatedly stated its support for D.C. statehood and home rule for the district’s more than 700,000 residents who lack voting representation in Congress.
It’s not difficult to see why Democrats jettisoned their principles on the matter, at least momentarily. With the 2024 election looming and many Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection bids, Biden and other top party officials chose to close ranks and undercut a favorite Republican line of attack ― that Democrats are soft on crime ― by rejecting the district’s new law that lowered maximum sentences for crimes like carjacking.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s failure last month to advance to the top two spots in that city’s mayoral race, assuring her defeat, also likely weighed heavily on the minds of Democrats and party strategists. Her loss was partially attributed to the increase in gun violence and other crimes in Chicago and other cities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden isn’t tacking right on just on crime, either. His White House is reportedly considering whether to revive detentions of migrant families who enter the U.S. illegally, a policy that many Democrats fiercely criticized. And his administration has already announced changes to U.S. asylum policy, to the outrage of fellow Democrats.
“The president happens to be a better politician than any of us and could see the handwriting on the wall without anybody telling him about it,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “The members who are up in 2024 could very well have a lot of qualms about voting for a bill that seemed to be soft on crime and could be depicted that way regardless of the reality.”
“With the 2024 election looming and many Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection bids, Biden and other top party officials chose to close ranks and undercut a favorite Republican line of attack ― that Democrats are soft on crime.”
The District of Columbia’s revised criminal code would eliminate almost all mandatory minimum sentences, except for first-degree murder, and lower maximum penalties for some crimes to levels that advocates say are in line with the sentences people are actually receiving in the city. For example, the maximum sentence for carjacking would drop from 40 years in prison under current law to 24 years under the new guidelines.
The revised code also raised penalties for some crimes, including attempted murder, attempted sexual assault, possession of assault weapons, and assault against police officers.
But Republicans said the D.C. Council would invite another crime wave in the nation’s capital, warning that the city’s changes would put its residents at risk, as well as the millions of tourists who visit Washington, D.C., every year.
“This is exactly why our laws give Congress the final say over how our nation’s capital is governed,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “Because we can’t have the craziness and dysfunction of a few local politicians jeopardizing basic public safety in the federal district that houses our national government.”
The D.C. Council passed the changes to the city’s criminal code — which hadn’t been updated in a century — in a unanimous vote last year. It also included noncontroversial changes that were long overdue. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the measure, citing safety concerns, but the council overruled her.
Fourteen Senate Democrats bucked Biden and their leadership in the Senate by voting against the GOP disapproval resolution on Wednesday, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.). Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) voted “present.”
“We should be supporting the autonomy of the citizens of D.C.,” Warren said, calling the measure “a way of just showing who has power around here and that Congress can stomp on” D.C. residents.
Van Hollen, who represents neighboring Maryland, noted the new carjacking penalties in D.C. are in line with penalties in other states.
“I looked at what other state laws for armed carjacking have,” Van Hollen said. “In many cases, they’re lower than the new D.C. penalty. Many states don’t have armed carjacking statutes. Fifteen states have lower penalties than the new lower D.C. maximum penalty.”
Booker, meanwhile, chided opponents of the D.C. crime code revisions for engaging “in scare tactics where actions are being taken as a way to win political points.”
The White House’s handling of the matter also drew Democratic criticism. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget initially argued for the district’s autonomy from Congress when it expressed its opposition to the GOP override last month before the House had taken the measure up for a vote.
As a result, 173 House Democrats voted against the disapproval resolution.
“This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded,” the White House’s Office of Management and Budget wrote in a Feb. 6 statement of administration policy. Biden reversed that position a month later, however, when he announced that wouldn’t oppose the effort during a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats.
Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who missed the vote because he is being treated for depression, chided the White House and others in a statement to HuffPost.
“Look this has been mishandled at every turn—from the White House blindsiding House Dems with a bait and switch, to the DC Council trying some last minute hijinks to pump the [brakes] on everything,” Calvello wrote. “And if Republicans are finally ready to address crime instead of blow hot air, then John is ready to work with them. John supports DC statehood and self governance. If he were here, he would vote accordingly.”
D.C. statehood advocates argued that the 700,000 residents of the majority-minority city should be allowed to determine their own laws and be represented in Congress like every other community in the country.
“President Biden gave this beautiful speech in September about our democracy and [the] future of our democracy, yet he’s not heeding his own words,” said Patrice Snow, a spokesperson for the advocacy organization DC Vote. “We should be able — as majority black and brown city, to determine our own destiny, good or bad. It’s very paternalistic.”
Still, Snow said there was a silver lining in Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of Congress: that D.C. statehood advocates “will be able to educate folks outside the District that 700,000 residents of D.C. don’t have a voting representative in Congress.”