State Watch

Why a DC crime bill is creating big problems for Democrats

Senate Republicans are trying to put the squeeze on Democrats ahead of an expected vote on legislation next week that would undo parts of a District of Columbia crime bill.

The bill would eliminate most mandatory sentences, lower penalties for a number of violent offenses, including carjackings and robberies, and expand the requirement for jury trials in most misdemeanor cases.

The legislation was unanimously approved by the D.C. City Council, which then overrode a veto by Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser in an overwhelming 12-1 vote.

The GOP-led House passed a resolution of disapproval that would block the implementation of the law. It’s that resolution the Senate is expected to vote on next week — and it is likely to pass despite the Democratic Senate majority and the party’s usual support for D.C. home rule.

The reasons are a mix of the political and circumstantial.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) is expected to miss the vote as he gets treatment for clinical depression, which narrows the Democratic majority to 50-49.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says he’ll vote in favor of the resolution, saying the legislation doesn’t make sense to him.

Other Senate Democrats, particularly those like Manchin who face difficult reelection races in red or purplish states in 2024, may vote with him. In the House, 31 Democrats joined Republicans in backing the resolution of disapproval.

If it passes, President Biden will face a somewhat difficult decision. While it is expected that he will veto the resolution of disapproval and argue it is a serious infringement on D.C. home rule — the idea that the District of Columbia has authority in the city and should be able to govern itself — the veto will undoubtedly be used by the GOP in campaign ads and arguments for the rest of the cycle.

And the danger of being a Democrat seen as soft on crime was reinforced Tuesday, when Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to advance from her own reelection primary amid public anger over the issue.  

Senate Democrats by and large have declined to jump on board to overturn the D.C. bill, given their longstanding support for the District’s self-governance, but Republicans are signaling confidence. They appear to think more Democrats in the Senate than Manchin will be with them on a vote next week.

“Why the D.C. City Council against the wishes of the mayor in the same party would be downgrading certain offenses — it just defies common sense,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told The Hill. “I think it will be difficult for anybody [to vote against the resolution] and I think it will be difficult for the president to veto it.” 

It’s no huge surprise that Manchin, who told The New York Times that slashing mandatory minimum sentences makes no sense to him, would vote with the GOP on the issue. His state voted overwhelmingly for former President Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Other Democrats to watch include Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jon Tester (Mont.), who told reporters in recent days that they are undecided. Both face reelection in 2024 in states won by Trump in 2020.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who usually votes with Democrats, is also seen as a gettable vote. A Sinema spokesperson told The Hill that she “does not preview votes.”

Republicans point to Lightfoot, the latest Democratic officeholder to run into problems over her handling of crime, to argue it will be political trouble for those who effectively vote to back the D.C. City Council.

Paul Vallas, the leading vote-getter on Tuesday in the Chicago vote, ran on a tough-on-crime message and took nearly twice as many votes as Lightfoot. 

“I think that the mayor of Chicago is probably a case in point,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

The lowering of penalties and other changes has created a tough fence to straddle for Democrats as they overwhelmingly support statehood for the District.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told The Hill that while his conference backs home rule powers, members are looking at the bill “very closely” because they “also want this to be a safe city.” 

The crime issue has touched a nerve in the District over nonstop reports of carjackings and robberies across the city.

Homicides are up 30 percent this year from the same point last year. According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s reporting, the District has seen 94 carjackings this year alone, with only 16 of those cases being closed and nine arrests made. Seventy-eight percent of those incidents have involved juveniles. 

“Everyone’s going to have to make up their own mind on this and I respect that,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who noted that he does not support the crime bill on its own. “Regardless of where you stand on the underlying issue as to what the D.C. government did, the United States Senate should not be substituting its judgment for the elected representatives for the people of the District of Columbia, especially since almost every Senate Democrat supports D.C. statehood.” 

While Bowser opposed the council’s measure and in early February called for it to consider changes to the minimization of penalties and issues surrounding jury trials, she has urged members of Congress to butt out of city-related issues.

The White House has yet to issue a direct veto threat against the resolution, though it has said that it opposes overruling the newly-passed criminal code. 

“Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” the White House said in January, adding that it still supports D.C. statehood.

Durbin added that he has “no idea” if he expects Biden to issue a formal veto threat. 

The District was handed home rule powers in 1973, and Congress has not overturned any city-wide enacted bill in more than three decades. Nevertheless, Republicans believe that the vote could put the president in a bind, especially as the crime situation worsens in the city. 

“I think it’ll be a difficult vote for anybody who believes in law and order to not be able to impact our capital city that has a higher rising crime rate,” Capito said.

Tags Chicago Chris Van Hollen Crime District of Columbia Joe Biden joe manchin Joe Manchin John Fetterman Jon Tester Lori Lightfoot Lori Lightfoot Muriel Bowser President Joe Biden Shelley Moore Capito

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