Senate Vote on Overturning D.C. Criminal Code Bill Expected Wednesday

Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
Flags with 51 stars fly along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 2021.

WASHINGTON – Washington, D.C., statehood advocates plan to rally on Wednesday in opposition to a vote by the Senate on whether to reject D.C.’s criminal code revamp, even as more Democratic senators said they planned to join Republicans in overturning the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said publicly for the first time Tuesday that he will vote for the resolution rejecting D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022.

“It was a close question, but on balance I’m voting yes,” he told reporters after Senate Democrats’ luncheon caucus.

The D.C. Council passed the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 to update its century-old criminal code. The measure changes how crimes are defined and sentenced, which proponents of the bill say brings the city in line with many states. However, opponents contend that the new code is too lenient; D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) expressed concern that changes in sentencing and other issues could make the city less safe and vetoed it, although the council overrode her veto.

The legislation then went before Congress, which has oversight over the city’s laws through a provision in the U.S. Constitution, allowing federal lawmakers exclusive authority over the District of Columbia. Last month, the GOP-controlled House rejected the D.C. code overhaul, with 31 Democrats joining Republicans in voting for a disapproval resolution targeting the bill – surprising observers, who note that Democrats typically support self-determination for the District.

President Biden already has said he plans to sign the resolution if the Senate votes similarly, which is expected to influence more Democratic senators to join Republicans in voting to block the D.C. proposal.

On Tuesday, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), a longtime statehood advocate and co-sponsor of the perennial D.C. statehood bill since he first introduced it in 2013, also said he will vote against the crime overhaul.

Some federal lawmakers painted provisions of the code revision that reduce the statutory maximum penalty for crimes such as carjackings and robberies as soft on crime, putting Democrats in competitive districts in a bind: vote against the revisions and risk abandoning fellow Democrats; vote for the revisions and prepare for an onslaught of negative campaign ads.

If the Senate votes against the bill Wednesday, it would mark the first time in more than 30 years that Congress will have acted to overturn a local D.C. law.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Monday tried to use his authority under the Home Rule Act to withdraw the legislation before senators could vote, but to no avail.

Advocates for D.C. self-determination say a vote blocking the city’s criminal code overhaul will undermine the District’s fight for statehood and could embolden Republicans determined to act as a check on the liberal stronghold as well as other blue cities.

Demonstrators protesting the Senate vote and congressional interference will gather at 11 a.m. at Columbus Circle outside Union Station before marching to First Street and Constitution Avenue for a rally.

Speakers at the event include Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative, advisory neighborhood commissioners and Patrice Sulton, an attorney who advised on the Revised Criminal Code Act, according to a news release. Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) also plan to give remarks.

“We want people to know that D.C. residents object to Congress interfering in our autonomy,” said Makia Green, an event organizer and co-conductor for Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a local Black-led mutual aid and community defense organization. “Statehood is not for sale. And no one should be selling out D.C. and our right to self determination and self governance.”

Republicans are already capitalizing on the moment.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday introduced the No Early Release for Carjackers Act, which would make people convicted of carjackings ineligible for early release from federal prison.

“There seems to be widespread agreement in Washington this week that those who commit carjackings shouldn’t be allowed early release from prison,” he said in a statement, referring to D.C.’s crime bill. “If that’s the case for D.C., it should be the case in places like Little Rock, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.”