Careful of GOP attacks, Democrats vote to overturn DC criminal law
WASHINGTON – The Senate approved a Republican-led effort to roll back the District of Columbia’s controversial criminal overhaul on Wednesday, sending it to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has said he intends to sign the rollback into law.
The vote overwhelmingly favored overturning the district’s crime law: Thirty-three Democrats joined all Republicans in doing so.
Wednesday’s passage of the recusal resolution, authored by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), is the first time Congress has directly overturned a Washington, DC law in three decades. It’s also a stunning reversal for a Democratic Party that has repeatedly declared 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 hard to see why Democrats abandoned their principles on the matter, at least momentarily. With the 2024 election looming and many Democratic incumbents facing tough re-election 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 such as carjacking.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s failure last month to advance to the top two spots in the city’s mayoral race, ensuring her defeat, also likely weighed heavily on the minds of Democrats and party strategists. Her loss was attributed in part to the increase in gun violence and other crimes in Chicago and other cities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden doesn’t really go for just crime either. His White House is reportedly considering whether to revive detentions of migrant families who enter the United States illegally, a policy many Democrats have fiercely criticized. And his administration has already announced changes to US asylum policy, to the chagrin of other Democrats.
“The president happens to be a better politician than any of us and could see the handwriting on the wall without anyone telling him,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “The members who are up in 2024 could well have a lot of qualms about voting for a bill that appeared to be soft on crime and could be portrayed that way regardless of the reality.”
With the 2024 election looming and many Democratic incumbents facing tough re-election bids, Biden and other top party officials opted 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 nearly all mandatory minimum sentences except for first-degree murder, and lower the maximum sentence for some crimes to levels that advocates say are consistent with the sentences people actually receive in the city. For example, the maximum penalty for carjacking will 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 on police officers.
But Republicans said the D.C. Council would invite another crime wave in the nation’s capital and warned the city’s changes would put its residents at risk, as well as the millions of tourists who visit Washington, D.C., each year.
“This is exactly why our laws give Congress the final say over how our nation’s capital is run,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “Because we cannot have the insanity and dysfunction of a few local politicians endangering basic public safety in the federal district that houses our national government.”
The DC 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 non-controversial changes that were long overdue. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the measure, citing safety concerns, but the council overruled her.
Fourteen Senate Democrats defied Biden and their Senate leadership by voting against the GOP’s resolution of disqualification 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.). Late. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) voted “present.”
“We should support autonomy for the citizens of DC,” Warren said, calling the measure “a way to show who’s in power around here and that Congress can stomp on” DC residents.
Van Hollen, who represents neighboring Maryland, noted that the new penalties for carjacking in DC are in line with penalties in other states.
“I looked at what other state armed carjacking laws have,” Van Hollen said. “In many cases they are lower than the new DC penalty. Many states do not have armed carjacking statutes. Fifteen states have lower penalties than the new lower DC maximum penalty.”
Booker, meanwhile, chided opponents of the D.C. criminal code revisions for engaging “in scare tactics where actions are taken as a way to score political points.”
The White House’s handling of the case also drew Democratic attention criticism. The White House 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 resolution of disqualification.
“This taxation without representation and denial of self-government is an affront to the democratic values upon which our nation was founded,” the White House Office of Management and Budget wrote in a Feb. 6 administration policy statement. Biden reversed that stance a month later when he announced he would not oppose the effort during a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats.
DC state 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 any other community in the country.
“President Biden gave this beautiful speech in September about our democracy and [the] the future of our democracy, yet he doesn’t listen to his own words,” said Patrice Snow, a spokesman for the advocacy organization DC Vote. “We should be able – as a majority black and brown city, to decide our own destiny, good or bad. It’s very paternalistic.”
Still, Snow said there was a silver lining to Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of Congress: that D.C. state campaigners “will be able to educate people outside the district that 700,000 residents of D.C. don’t have a voting representative in Congress.”