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Congress overturns D.C. crime bill with President Biden's help

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats on March 7. Schumer said he will vote yes on a resolution to block a recent District of Columbia crime bill.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats on March 7. Schumer said he will vote yes on a resolution to block a recent District of Columbia crime bill.

The Democratic-held Senate approved a GOP-led resolution that will overrule the liberal Washington, D.C., city council's rewrite of the criminal code for the nation's capital. The legislation now heads to President Biden's desk, who surprised congressional Democrats when he announced last week that he would not veto the measure.

The vote has exposed divisions within Democratic ranks over how to confront widespread concerns over crime and public safety, which the party has historically lagged behind Republicans when it comes to voters' trust.

The measure cleared the Senate 81-14. Democrats — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — voted with Republicans to approve it. One senator voted present. The measure only required a simple majority to pass. Last month, 31 House Democrats voted with all Republicans to pass the measure even before the president had made his position known.

"What we've got is a D.C. city council that seems to be completely bent on achieving some sort of woke messaging on criminal justice reform, as opposed to worrying about the safety and security of people who come to visit and those who reside in this city," Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., the lead sponsor of the resolution, told NPR.

The D.C. bill is the product of a years-long review that involved various stakeholders in the criminal justice system. It passed the D.C. council unanimously, but was vetoed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. Her veto was overruled but her opposition helped fuel GOP arguments — and Biden's concern — that the bill could be perceived as too soft on crime at a time when rates of homicides and car thefts are rising in the city,according to police data.

At issue in what was a sweeping but otherwise noncontroversial effort to overhaul D.C.'s criminal statutes are provisions to reduce the maximum penalties for crimes like armed carjacking from 40 years down to 24, which supporters argue is in line with the actual sentences handed down in court in recent years.

There was also objection to a provision to expanding the right to jury trials for certain criminal misdemeanor offenses, which critics say would overload a taxed D.C. court system and result in prosecutors dropping more cases.

Those arguments — and Biden's support for the GOP position — were enough for Democrats like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who sided with Republicans. He noted hundreds of thousands of Virginians commute daily into Washington, D.C.

"If we were to somehow send a message that, alright, we're going to lower the penalty on carjacking? That doesn't pass the smell test," he told NPR. Warner acknowledged his party has had a more difficult time winning over voters when crime is a top concern.

"I think there might be a Democratic House if folks had handled the crime issue differently [in 2022]," he said.

The split frustrated Democrats like Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who voted against the GOP resolution. He said lost in the debate was that the revised code would also enhance penalties for gun crimes — a major Democratic priority.

"I don't think it's out of the mainstream, but I don't think that's how Republicans presented it, and I don't think we were effective in countering that because we were looking at it from a process point of view," he said.

The resolution also drew the support of red state Democrats like Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who are facing reelection next year. Tester has already announced his intention to run again, but Manchin has not made his plans known. Tester told NPR he supported it because "from a law enforcement perspective, it's the right thing to do."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Democrats in an extended Senate floor speech

McConnell's floor speech Tuesday hardly concealed the party's intention to use crime issues against Democrats in 2024 when Republicans have favorable odds to regain the majority.

"We cannot only have public safety in this country in exceptional cases, when a Republican House and a narrowly divided Senate can force Democrats to do the right thing against their will," McConnell said.

The fate of the D.C. crime bill will now head back to the D.C. council, where Chairman Phil Mendelson has already begrudgingly said officials will try to rework the bill to appease both Biden and Congress.

Mendelson tried to preempt the Senate vote by informing senators earlier this week the council would make changes to the bill, but the Senate vote proceeded regardless in order to get lawmakers on record.

"I think the White House's position is to protect the Democrats in Congress, that's what I think," Mendelson said. "This is next year's campaign, that's what this is about. It's about doing videos that say 'senator so-and-so voted to be soft on crime in the District of Columbia,' and nobody wants that as message against them."

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.