Last month, the GOP-controlled House approved on a resolution to block one of D.C.’s new laws, a radical overhaul of its 120-year-old criminal code. 173 Democrats voted to let D.C.’s law stand, with only 31 Democrats voting to block it.
Now Senate is set to vote on the resolution blocking the law. Despite being controlled by the Democrats, the chamber looks likely to side with the Republican majority in House. Even President Joe Biden has committed to signing the House Republicans’ resolution, after its passage through the Senate.
In other words, 173 House Democrats were just bucked by their own president… and they’re about to regret their votes.
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The GOP’s campaign managers are already running attack ads against the most vulnerable of these 173 Democrats. They especially singled out Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a “Blue Dog” Democrat known for flipping the district once held by House GOP Whip Eric Cantor.
“So crazy, even President Biden won’t support the anarchy,” the GOP said in an advertisement showing Spanberger’s face.
Some Democrats have defended their votes against the resolution. They were arguing, as they have for many years, that the District of Columbia should be able to govern itself.
But that point is moot, because D.C. doesn’t fully enjoy home rule just yet.
The GOP-led disapproval resolution is expected to easily pass the Senate on Wednesday with ample Democratic support.
The overhaul of D.C.’s criminal code was approved late last year by the D.C. Council after years of failed attempts. It would redefine crimes, change criminal justice policies and rework how sentences should be handed down after convictions. It would also do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.
Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the overhaul in January, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrode her veto. “Anytime there’s a policy that reduces penalties, I think it sends the wrong message,” she said.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the district, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes would “lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.”
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Prior to last year, Washington’s criminal code had never seen such a radical update from local authorities — not since the code was first drafted in 1901!
The new criminal code is set to take effect in October 2025. But to become law, it has to survive a 60-day review period during which Congress and the president could override it, thanks to a 1973 law called the Home Rule Act.
Though Congress has imposed various limits on D.C. through spending bills over the years, the formal disapproval process hasn’t been used since 1991, more than 30 years ago.
As the new GOP majority in the House made crime a political priority, the House took up the resolution of disapproval last month and voted 250-173 to overturn the D.C. criminal code revisions, with every Republican voting for the resolution.
The White House released a statement condemning the resolution “While we work towards making Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” the statement said.
But the statement never said that Biden would veto the resolution.
As the Senate was expected to take up the bill, both Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., remained quiet. Then on a visit to a Democratic caucus luncheon last week, the president surprised senators by declaring that he would sign the GOP resolution if it reached his desk.
“If you pass it, I will sign it,” Biden said in the private meeting.
It was not only a pivot on the D.C. measure after his administration had opposed it, but a shift in Democrats’ longstanding position on local issues in D.C. They’ve long argued that the federal government should not step in to change the district’s laws.
Biden later tweeted that he supports D.C. statehood, but “I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”
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Some Democrats publicly slammed their president for his flip-flopping.
“It was less than ideal,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., told Axios Tuesday. “Our hope is that there will be much greater clarity going forward.”
“It would’ve been really good to have a heads up,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told the outlet.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson even announced the withdrawal of the law in a last-ditch effort to thwart the Senate vote. But Democrats said the vote was on the House disapproval resolution, not the council’s original transmission to the Senate.
Some Democratic senators signaled they would still vote against the resolution.
“Any effort to go forward on this vote — it’s just a way to try to stomp on D.C.,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But Biden’s support appeared to win over the majority of his party’s Senate caucus — many of whom pointed out that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had opposed the city council’s new law.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he would support it because “crime is just rampant all over the country,”
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On Tuesday, Schumer announced he would vote for it, too.
“I’m going to vote yes,” Schumer told reporters. “It was a tough question, but on balance I am voting yes.”
Even Schumer is voting with the House Republicans… and against Spanberger.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.