WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s support of a Republican resolution to block new District of Columbia crime laws has split members of his own party amid rising concerns about crime in the nation’s capital and other cities.
The GOP-led disapproval resolution is expected to easily pass the Senate on Wednesday with ample Democratic support. But most House Democrats voted against it last month, arguing as they have for many years that the District of Columbia should be able to govern itself.
The Democratic support for the resolution, which comes as murders have spiked over a number of years in D.C., is a shift for Biden and his party and could allow Congress to nullify the city’s laws through the disapproval process for the first time in more than three decades.
A look at the politics and precedent of Wednesday’s Senate vote on D.C. crime laws:
THE DISTRICT’S NEW LAWS
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.”
Washington’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901, and criminal justice experts say that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the criminal laws, similar to many other cities.
GOP PUSHBACK TURNS BIPARTISAN
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 1970s-era 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.
As the new GOP majority in the House made rising crime rates 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 31 Democrats voting with Republicans. Most Democrats opposed the resolution, though, after the White House sent out a statement of policy opposing the legislation.
The White House did not explicitly say that Biden would veto the measure. But the statement said the White House opposed it and that the resolution is an example “of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood. 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.”
Eyeing a Senate vote, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly criticized Biden and Democrats over the White House opposition.
“Should we be softer on crime, like Democrats want, at the local, state, and federal levels?” McConnell said in February. “Or should we be tougher on crime, like Republicans and the American people want?
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 that the District of Columbia should govern itself, and that the federal government should not step in to change its 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.”
Biden’s move — coming weeks before he is set to announce his reelection campaign, and as Republicans have relentlessly criticized Democrats over city crime rates — infuriated some House Democrats who had opposed the measure after the White House initially opposed it.
“We need to make sure the Senate understands the full effect of taking away local decision-making, particularly for the District of Columbia that does not have representation in that manner,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate in the House, said the criminal law overhaul was “extraordinarily important” and the result of years of work by lawmakers, criminal justice experts and nonprofits that deal with offenders.
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 Mayor Bowser had opposed it.
“What we’ve heard from the mayor of D.C. is there’s more work to be done,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who said she will vote for the GOP measure.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he would support it because “crime is just rampant all over the country,”
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.”