Senate Votes to Reject D.C. Criminal Code Bill

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Demonstrators turn out for a Hands Off D.C. march near Union Station, where about 200 people gathered on Wednesday ahead of a Senate vote on the city’s legislation.

WASHINGTON – Congress on Wednesday voted to overturn local D.C. legislation for the first time in more than 30 years, as a number of Senate Democrats joined Republicans in blocking a major overhaul of the city’s criminal sentencing laws.

President Biden already has indicated he will sign the disapproval resolution, which will keep D.C. from enacting the most comprehensive revision of its criminal code in a century.

That remarkable turn of events is historic in a city that has struggled for full autonomy for its entire existence and, after making headway in persuading Democrats writ large to unite in support of D.C. statehood, is now left wondering about the future of that effort.

The measure passed 81-14. Among Democrats and independents who caucus with them, 33 voted yes and 14 said no; one, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), voted present, and three were absent. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, Democrats from Virginia, voted yes; Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Democrats from Maryland, voted no. Last month, 31 Democrats joined Republicans to vote against the D.C. bill in the GOP-led House.

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who sponsored the disapproval resolution targeting the criminal code, said the D.C. Council put “woke ideology over public safety.”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), at lectern, and Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) appear at a news conference Wednesday to talk about the D.C. legislation, which did not receive congressional approval.

“No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous, soft-on-crime bill,” he said. “Violent crime has become an epidemic in America. This resolution is a referendum on it.”

D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb (D) was among the D.C. lawmakers denouncing the vote.

“Local autonomy and self-governance are fundamental American values,” he said in a statement. “Any attempt to replace District residents’ will with that of federal politicians elected hundreds of miles away violates the basic freedoms and principles on which this country was founded.”

The statehood advocacy group DC Vote called the vote “a paternalistic pattern of oppression for the 700,000 people of D.C.”

“We choose our leaders in the District to decide our laws, just like everyone else in each state. Yet the Senate continued a history of dismissing this self-governance in order to create fodder for political campaigns,” spokeswoman Patrice Snow said in a statement.

As the Senate prepared to vote on D.C.’s criminal code overhaul Wednesday, Republican members chided District officials as pandering to criminals with the rewrite, while two lone Democratic senators implored their colleagues to support the city’s right to self-determination.

As the debate raged inside the Capitol on Wednesday, outside more than a dozen people were arrested as they protested congressional involvement in the city’s lawmaking.

About 200 people had gathered outside Union Station late Wednesday morning, many holding signs declaring “D.C. Statehood is Racial Justice,” before marching to an intersection close to the Capitol. There, about 16 people were arrested for staying in the intersection after police orders to disperse for crowding, obstructing or incommoding, a D.C. code often cited when arresting protesters during peaceful, planned and coordinated actions of civil disobedience such as the demonstration on Wednesday.

Those arrested in the intersection were ticketed and released on-site, as is standard practice during such events, said Capitol Police spokesman Tim Barber. One person was also arrested for defacement, Barber said. Additional details were not immediately available.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told the crowd that statehood advocates had one message for Biden and Congress.

“Keep your hands off D.C.,” she said to cheers. “You either support D.C. home rule or you don’t. There are no exceptions. And there is no middle ground on D.C.’s right to self government.”

At a public safety neighborhood walk event before the vote Wednesday afternoon, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she was unhappy that “Congress is intervening in our laws,” and that the debate underscored the need for statehood.

“It was my fervent hope that my concerns with the crime bill would have been addressed locally,” Bowser said. “What we should all be prepared to do is stop talking about a dead bill and get to work to make it right.”

As protests continued outside a Senate office building, lawmakers on the floor of the Senate questioned how District officials could reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences while crime is on the rise, and blamed Democrats for not making public safety a priority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) painted a picture of a District overrun by crime, including the fatal stabbing of a man last week in the Petworth library and what he said was an increase in carjackings. (Carjackings have been up and down, remaining at this point at roughly the same rate year over year – now about 2 percent lower than at the same time in 2022.)

“This is our capital city, but local politicians have let its streets become a danger and an embarrassment,” he said.

“Far-left radicals on the D.C. city council thought now is the time to reduce penalties for carjacking,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said. “That tells me the D.C. city council is blind to crime happening right outside their front door.”

Sen Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said he fears for his wife and staff walking to Capitol Hill from their homes and for Christmas gave the women on his staff a “special device” to defend themselves if they are attacked.

“This city is no longer safe. This city no longer belongs to the people. This city now belongs to the criminals,” he said.

Violent crime is down 8 percent, homicide is up 33 percent and motor vehicle theft is up 108 percent compared to this point last year, according to data from D.C. police.

Van Hollen, one of the few senators who spoke in defense of the District on Wednesday, pointed out that 15 states – including Alaska, Kansas, North Dakota and Kentucky – have lower penalties for armed carjacking than the newly revised penalties in D.C.

“In my view this resolution is an attack on the democratic rights of the people of the District of Columbia, which has its own duly elected democratic representatives, the mayor and D.C. Council. It’s residents are fully capable of deciding their own laws and deciding their own future. Congress should not be overriding the will of the people of D.C.,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), wearing a D.C. statehood pin, said the overhaul of D.C.’s criminal code is being used to score political points, yet the new law raises the maximum penalty for murder and sexual assault, as well as assault of a police officer and possession of firearms.

“This body shouldn’t interrupt a city trying to live its American ideals that we take for granted but they obviously today are still fighting for,” he said.

Congress has oversight of D.C.’s laws and budget because of a provision in the U.S. Constitution that grants Congress exclusive authority over the federal district. Over the past 50 years Congress has used that authority in myriad ways, such as restricting how D.C. spends local funds on subsidized abortion or the development of a legal recreational marijuana industry. But it hasn’t successfully used its power to “disapprove” of D.C. legislation since 1991, when it sought to maintain building height restrictions in the nation’s capital.

Though congressional Democrats have over the past decade warmed considerably to backing D.C. home rule, crime has been a politically sensitive issue for the party in recent elections as Republicans have targeted them aggressively in attack ads. In turn, the hot-button nature of the D.C. crime bill – painted by Republicans as too lenient – appeared to complicate their calculus on this vote, giving them the choice of either allying with the deep-blue District as usual, on the principle that Congress shouldn’t be playing local city council – or join Republicans in the rebuke of D.C. to avoid the risk of appearing “soft on crime.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday announced plans to run digital ads against 15 vulnerable House Democrats, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), who voted against the disapproval resolution last month. Axios first reported the ad buy.

In response, Spanberger spokesman Connor Joseph issued a statement defending her record on public safety.

Bowser had vetoed the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 over concerns that those sentencing changes could make the city less safe, among other things, although the council overrode her veto. The mayor later told Senate leaders in a letter that Congress should stay out of D.C.’s business and let the council handle her concerns through amendments at the local level. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Monday also had tried unsuccessfully to stave off a Senate vote by notifying the chamber that he was withdrawing the legislation.

While Biden said he continues to support statehood for the city, he also indicated he opposed the criminal code bill as presented.

“I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” the president tweeted last week.

The revised criminal code – the product of more than a decade of collaboration among prosecutors, defense lawyers and criminal justice researchers – is more complex than much of the political debate reflected. But Congress held no hearings on the bill in either chamber to hear from its architects, city officials or criminal justice experts.

Joined by colleagues onstage at the rally, D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) called blocking the criminal code a “grave injustice” and part of a long history of racism.

“You don’t get to choose when democracy doesn’t go your way, to create a super veto power and throw your city under the bus,” she said.

In the crowd, criminal defense attorney Brandon Hicks said judges are already choosing lower sentences. He read the portion of the revised code as it relates to carjackings and viewed the revisions as modernizing what was already happening in courtrooms.

“I think that’s getting lost,” he said. “This is not some Democratic city trying to create a liberal wish list. These are moderate reforms.”

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The Washington Post’s Steve Thompson, Paul Kane, Liz Goodwin and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.