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Senate votes to block DC crime laws, Biden supportive

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday to block new District of Columbia crime laws and overrule the city government as lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern about rising violent crime rates in cities nationwide.
Demonstrators hold signs during a protest in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Wednesday, March 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Protestors rallied against a Republican-sponsored resolution blocking new District of Columbia laws that would overhaul how the nation's capital prosecutes and punishes crime. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday to block new District of Columbia crime laws and overrule the city government as lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern about rising violent crime rates in cities nationwide.

President Joe Biden said last week that he will sign the Republican resolution, which passed the Senate 81-14 after passing the House last month. It marked the first time in more than three decades that Congress has nullified the capital city’s laws through the disapproval process — and a shift in the long-held Democratic position that the federal government should let D.C. govern itself.

Biden, who is set to announce a reelection campaign in the coming months, has been under increasing pressure on the issue from Republicans who have made reducing crime a political priority. In D.C., homicides in the city had risen for four years straight before they dropped around 10% in 2022. The 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003.

“We are the greatest superpower nation in history,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. "This is our capital city. But local politicians have let its streets become a danger and an embarrassment.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate in the House, pushed back on the effort, speaking at a “Hands off D.C.” rally ahead of the vote.

“There are no exceptions and there is no middle ground on D.C.’s right to self-government," Norton said.

In a statement released after Wednesday night's vote, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb said, “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.

"To overturn our local, democratically enacted laws — the product of 10+ years of collaboration between law enforcement, judges, and policy experts — without any independent analysis, review, or alternative proposal, is not only undemocratic, but also careless.”

The overhaul of D.C.’s criminal code was approved late last year by the city council after years of failed attempts. It would redefine crimes, change criminal justice policies and rework how sentences should be handed down after convictions. It would also do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.

Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the overhaul in January, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals. She later suggested changes after the council overrode her veto.

Senate Democrats supporting the measure have cited Bowser’s veto, arguing that it needs another look.

“What we’ve heard from the mayor of D.C. is there’s more work to be done,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, said they would vote for the resolution “and urge the mayor and council to work together to create a safer city for all, including the many Virginians who commute to DC for work every day.”

Washington, D.C.’s criminal code was originally written in 1901 and received a handful of piecemeal updates since then. It contains multiple anachronistic details, such as a reference to steamboats and regulations for the care and feeding of livestock being transported through the city.

The changes were set to effect in October 2025. But to become law, it had to survive a 60-day review period during which Congress and the president could override it, thanks to a 1970s-era law called the Home Rule Act. Though Congress has imposed various limits on D.C. through spending bills over the years, the formal disapproval process hasn’t been used since 1991.

As it stands now, criminal justice experts say that the D.C. criminal code has disproportionately affected Black people, similar to many other cities.

Defending the revisions, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and other councilmembers maintain that the reduced sentences for offenses such as carjacking would still place the maximum sentences well above the penalties chosen by the vast majority of judges. They argue that the current high sentence maximums have done little to deter rising crime in the District in recent years.

Biden’s surprise decision to support the Republican measure angered many House Democrats, like Norton, who had voted against the measure in the House after the White House signaled opposition.

The White House did not explicitly say then that Biden would veto the measure. But the statement issued ahead of the House vote said the White House opposed the resolution and called it an example “of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood."

“While we work towards making Washington, D.C., the 51st state of our Union, Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” the White House statement said.

After announcing in a Senate Democratic caucus luncheon last week that he would instead support the resolution and sign it, Biden tweeted that he supports D.C. statehood. But he added, “I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings.”

McConnell called Biden’s move a “flip-flop.”

“The public pressure was so great that the president now says he wants to sign the same Republican bill that he’d previously announced he opposed,” McConnell said.

While many Democrats supported the bill, some were less than enthusiastic.

“I’m going to vote yes,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday. “It was a tough question, but on balance I am voting yes.”

Mary Clare Jalonick And Ashraf Khalil, The Associated Press