The Washington Post

Senate votes to block D.C. criminal code overhaul


Congress on Wednesday voted to overturn local D.C. legislatio­n for the first time in more than 30 years, as some 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 indepen

dents who caucus with them, 33 voted yes and 14 said no; Sen. Raphael G. 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.”

“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 city 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.

While 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.”

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 with 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.

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 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 consult with its architects, city officials or criminal justice experts.

In the crowd at the rally, 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.”

 ?? MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? 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.
MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST 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.
 ?? Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post ?? 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.
Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post 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.

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