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In total, 31 Democrats voted to block the Washington, D.C., law despite their strong support for home rule.
Despite strong support among Senate Democrats for home rule, 31 of them and two independents still crossed the aisle Wednesday evening as the Senate overwhelmingly voted, 81 to 14, to undo revisions made by local officials to Washington, D.C.’s criminal code.
The move was a blow to district officials who object to the fact that Congress has the constitutional ability to undo its decisions.
In explaining the vote, some like Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said that while she supported statehood for the district, she was persuaded by “the mayor’s concerns.”
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had vetoed the city council’s rewrite of its criminal code, expressing opposition to lowering the penalties for many violent crimes in the city, including robbery and carjacking.
But Bowser objects to Congress overriding the city’s decision. “I’m not a supporter of what the D.C. City Council did,” Bowser said during an interview last Friday on "Meet the Press NOW,” adding her difference with the council reflected “pretty significant strong philosophical debates around the country” on addressing crime.
Still, she said, ”We’re taxpaying Americans. We live in the shadow of the Capitol, but we don't have two senators. We don't have a vote,” adding that language included in other congressional bills prohibits the city from using public funds for abortions and does not allow the city to tax the sale of marijuana.
Democrats’ decision highlights the concerns of many lawmakers—some facing tough reelections in 2024—over rising crime in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. (Two Independent senators, Angus King of Maine and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also voted to overturn the district’s criminal code.)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has repeatedly stated his opposition to lowering penalties amid rising crimes. When asked whether Washington city officials should set their own laws, the Democrat said only, “Crime is crime.”
Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, had a similar response. He said he believed that the district’s criminal statute went too far. And when asked about the opposition to overruling the city’s decision, he said, “I think Congress has a role.”
Sen. Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, who faces what’s expected to be a tough reelection bid next year, said only that he hoped “we can reach the day when we have statehood. But we’re not there yet.” In an interview on MSNBC on Saturday, Casey said, “We have to put the focus on crime.”
In an effort to put pressure on Democrats to go along with the vote, Republicans sought to portray Democrats as “being soft on crime.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, noted during a speech on the Senate floor that a “no” vote would “put every member on the record” as approving of lowering criminal penalties.
And Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said that what was “most puzzling to me is why you would ever reduce penalties for carjacking.” The idea shows how the city council members are “blind to crime happening right in front of them,” he said. “Either that or the carjacking industry has some really good lobbyists here in Washington.”
After President Biden surprised Democrats and district officials by saying he would not veto the resolution, the district's city council asked to withdraw the measure in a last-ditch effort on Monday to avoid being overridden by Congress. They were told it was too late.
Reflecting the split between Democrats, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, echoed the views of her colleagues in supporting statehood, but took the side of the sentencing changes’ proponents in explaining her opposition to the resolution. She noted that the changes stem from a 16-year effort to clean up a criminal code.
Proponents have said the changes revamp a criminal code that was written by Congress in 1901 and has become outdated. For instance, the criminal code does not define crimes like assault.
Warren was joined in her opposition by Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat. Both support statehood for the district. Hirono also defended city officials, noting the sentencing revisions came after years of discussion. “It didn’t happen overnight,” she said.