Thirty-three Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans Wednesday in overwhelmingly rejecting a criminal code rewrite by the District of Columbia that critics had derided as soft on crime.
The nullification by Congress of a locally-approved law, which hasn’t happened in more than three decades, now goes to the White House, where President Joseph R. Biden has said he will sign the Republican measure overturning the D.C. City Council’s action.
Amid growing outcry nationwide over lawlessness and crime, even top Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow joined the 81-14 majority rejecting the District’s criminal code overhaul.
Democrats in deep-red states who face re-election in 2024 — including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Montan’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III — were among those abandoning the District, as were purple-state Democrats such as Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey Jr., both of whom are seeking reelection in 2024.
The rewritten criminal code would have lowered penalties for crimes such as carjacking and also would’ve allowed violent offenders a chance to be released from prison early.
The White House said last month that the president supported the District’s right to self-rule, but Mr. Biden made a U-turn when it became clear that the political momentum against the measure was too great.
“Democrats were not happy. The White House put out a formal statement opposing us. The vast majority of House Democrats voted against us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, said during his floor speech.
“But then President Biden reversed himself,” he went on. “The public pressure was so great that the president now says he wants to sign the same Republican bill that he’d previously announced he opposed.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tried Monday to spare the law’s public demise by announcing an unprecedented withdrawal of rewritten criminal code, a piece of legislation that the council persisted with despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto. Senate aides said in response that such a maneuver was not possible.
Republicans argued during the debate over the code that the District was acting irresponsibly in lowering criminal penalties amid a 33% increase in homicides and over 100 carjackings so far this year.
Conservative lawmakers blamed the influence of the nationwide anti-police movement that Republicans argue is fueling the crime waves seen in multiple American cities.
“Come to the real world, Mr. President and the D.C. Council,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican. “Perhaps the ‘defund the police’ crowd has finally learned what everyone else has known for ages: Criminal penalties are not just suggestions, they protect the public.”
As lawmakers debated the measure, activists protested the Senate’s action with a demonstration outside the nearby Union Station.
After an attempted carjacking was reported on social media within sight of the demonstration, Sen. Bill Hagerty, the Tennessee Republican who captained the Senate’s disapproval effort, took note.
“Just moments ago over at Union Station where there’s a protest going on right now — protesting our actions here, people protesting in favor of this soft-on-crime position the D.C. Council has taken — those protesters just witnessed an attempted carjacking,” Mr. Hagerty said.
He added that the suspect was confronted and fled the area by running right through the protest crowd.
Only a few Democrats spoke out in support of the District code.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, from Maryland, affirmed his belief in statehood for the federal city and saw the resolution as violating the District’s right to autonomy.
“In my view, this resolution is an attack on the democratic rights of the people of District of Columbia, which has its own duly elected democratic representatives there, and the D.C. Council,” Mr. Van Hollen said. He also argued that the rewritten penalties for carjackings in D.C.’s overhauled criminal code are still tougher than those of multiple states, including reliably red Kentucky.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker argued the District had stiffened the penalties for attempted murder, sexual assault and assault on a police officer in the rewritten code.
Mayor Bowser has proposed a compromise rewrite that restores harsher penalties for certain violent crimes and delays the implementation date until 2027. Her proposal, now the only legislation addressing the code on the books, awaits a committee hearing.