D.C. Council Chairman Tries to Pull Crime Code Bill before Senate Vote

Photo for The Washington Post by Craig Hudson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

The Senate this week plans to vote on whether to block D.C.’s overhaul of its century-old criminal code from becoming law, even as city leaders tried to pull the legislation before federal lawmakers could weigh in. If the Senate resolution is successful, it would be the first in more than three decades to overturn a piece of D.C. legislation, striking a blow to the city’s efforts for self-rule and toward statehood.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Monday wrote to the Senate saying that he was withdrawing the city’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, a move that Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who sponsored the disapproval resolution targeting the criminal code, called a “desperate, made-up maneuver.” In a bipartisan vote, the House last month approved a companion resolution against the D.C. legislation; if the Senate does the same, President Joe Biden has said he’ll sign it.

The D.C. legislation is a sweeping bill that changes the way many crimes are defined and sentenced in the city’s outdated code. Some congressional lawmakers have seized on provisions of the code revision that reduce the statutory maximum penalty for crimes such as carjackings and robberies, labeling supporters of the changes as soft on crime amid national conversations about public safety and policing.

Proponents of the revisions say the debate about the bill has lacked nuance, noting that the changes create sentencing enhancements that can increase penalties, for example. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has also opposed various changes to the code and unsuccessfully vetoed the bill, a posture that has been cited by congressional opponents of the bill as fuel for their argument. Ahead of the House vote, Bowser formally proposed legislative changes to the bill to address her concerns.

The effort by Mendelson illustrates the most recent divide between legislators on the Hill and local officials elected by D.C.’s roughly 700,000 residents, who still lack a voting representative in Congress. And if successful, the Republican-led resolution to block the city’s criminal code overhaul could signal the start of a new phase of attacks on the federal city’s home rule from congressional Republicans eager to strike down liberal policies in the deep-blue District.

In a letter addressed to Vice President Kamala Harris, the president of the Senate, Mendelson asserted that he had the ability to withdraw the criminal code bill because the Senate had not yet acted on it. He later explained that pulling the bill – an unprecedented move by D.C. lawmakers – was also intended to give the council more time to rework the bill and improve the messaging around it.

“This is not conceding to the Republican rhetoric that the bill is bad, it’s simply pulling it back so that we have more options available to us,” Mendelson said of his effort to withdraw the measure. “If Republicans want to proceed with the vote, it will be a hollow vote because the bill isn’t there before them.”

But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Monday afternoon that a vote on the disapproval resolution is scheduled for Wednesday. He declined to state his own position, adding that Senate Democrats plan to discuss the matter further in their luncheon caucus Tuesday.

Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s majority whip, said support for the disapproval resolution in the Democratic caucus was “50-50 as of last week.” But Biden’s announcement Thursday that he will sign the resolution should it pass the Senate, Durbin said, has caused lawmakers to review their thinking.

“He’s decided that he’s not going to veto it. That’s significant,” Durbin said. “It’s a pretty mixed message coming out of D.C. When they spent five years rewriting their criminal code that they haven’t touched for almost a century, then the mayor vetoes it, then the council overrides the veto 12-to-1, it’s kind of a mixed message as to the substance of what they have done.”

The GOP-controlled House last month rejected the D.C. code overhaul in a bipartisan vote, with 31 Democrats joining the Republicans. Biden’s decision is expected to influence more Democratic senators to join Republicans in voting to block the D.C. proposal, which would be a first for Congress in more than 30 years.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who stated last month that he hadn’t yet dug into the legislation but the “local government should do what they think is right for the community,” said Monday afternoon that his thinking about the measure had changed.

“The statements of both the mayor and the council chairman suggest the DC crime bill is not ready for prime time,” Kaine said in a statement. “I will vote for the resolution of disapproval and I encourage the mayor and council to work together to find a consensus.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said his position had not changed, adding in a statement that he “strongly support[s] home rule for the District” and would vote against the disapproval resolution focused on the criminal code, as well as another resolution passed by the House last month to block a separate D.C. law that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. The resolution targeting the criminal code is subject to different rules in the Senate, which allowed lawmakers to fast-track it for a vote.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) echoed Cardin’s sentiments and said he would vote against the resolution, adding “I support the right of the people of the District of Columbia to self-determination and full democracy.” But Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who said previously that it would take “exceptional” circumstances to interfere in D.C. legislation, added Monday that he would support the resolution, “given the safety concerns of Virginia commuters, Mayor Bowser’s opposition to these provisions, and the wishes of the D.C. Council – which has withdrawn this bill.”

If the Senate ultimately votes for the disapproval resolution, Mendelson said the council will still take another crack at revising the criminal-code legislation.

Hagerty said that Mendelson’s effort to withdraw the bill has no basis in the D.C. Home Rule Act, but it “underscores the completely unserious way the D.C. Council has legislated. No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous D.C. soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe.”

The office of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting representative in Congress, also said Monday that withdrawing the bill was unlikely to affect Senate proceedings, adding that there was no precedent for withdrawing a bill that has already been transmitted to Congress.

At a news conference Monday afternoon focused on public safety in the District, Bowser reiterated some of her issues with the proposed changes to the code, including what she called “superfluous” policy changes that deserved more consideration.

“I would agree with the chairman’s sentiment that it’s best for everybody if the vote doesn’t take place,” she said.