The Senate on Wednesday voted by a lopsided margin to halt much debated changes to Washington, D.C.’s, century-old criminal code, a move supported by President Joe Biden but criticized by some local activists.
The Senate voted 81-14, with Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock voting present, to shut down the proposed changes. Thirty-three members of the Democratic caucus voted along with Republicans.
“It’s the opposite of good policy. It will make the crime wave even worse. It sends the wrong message that D.C. isn’t serious about violent crime,” the resolution’s lead sponsor, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, said on the floor.
However, he told reporters, he was “open” to working with the city council to continue to update the criminal code.
“Most Americans from all over the country visit our nation’s capital each week to meet with their federal representatives and to enjoy our national history,” Hagerty said. “Congress has a constitutional obligation to make sure these visitors can walk down the sidewalk or enjoy a meal without fear of becoming victims.”
The new code would have reduced maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, robbery and other offenses while increasing sentences for crimes including attempted murder. It would have also eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and would have expanded jury trials for certain misdemeanors.
The district’s city council initially passed the changes by a 13-0 margin, though Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, vetoed it. Her veto was overturned by a 12-1 vote, sending the legislation to the House.
Because of the district’s unique status, Congress has authority over its laws.
In the House, Republicans led a resolution to shut down the effort and were joined by 31 Democrats. After that February vote, President Biden said he would sign the GOP legislation, opening the floodgates for Senate Democrats to say they too supported stopping the changes to the criminal code.
The GOP-led measure to block the reforms from taking place sparked broad debate over Democrats’ messaging on crime, the best way to ensure public safety and how much autonomy the nation’s capital should have, with many Democrats — including Biden — having called for it to be a state.
Advocates of the new criminal code said the city deserves to be allowed to govern itself, noting that no Washington law has been overturned by Congress in three decades.
Supporters also cited how long the revisions were developed for a criminal code that hasn’t been updated to this degree in more than a century.
“The elected representatives of the District of Columbia, after exhaustive review made some decisions about criminal justice reform. I don’t agree with every single one of them they made, but I’ll tell you this: What they did is entirely defensible, and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of the United States Congress for the first time in 30 years big-footing their decisions,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Wednesday.
“Think about how patronizing and paternalistic for this body not being any part of this process now suddenly saying they need adult supervision as if they are children,” added Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who was raised in D.C.
Activists outside the Capitol rallied to push lawmakers to shut down the effort to scrap the changes, but to no avail.
Seventeen people were arrested, according to Capitol Police, including local elected officials who are members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and advocacy organization leaders. At least 16 people were arrested for allegedly crowding, obstructing and incommoding another person and one was arrested for alleged defacement during a planned act of civil disobedience.
“We have come together today with one simple message for Congress, and President Biden. Keep your hands off D.C. 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 rights to self-government,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s only representative in Congress and who doesn’t get to vote on legislation, said at a protest.
Still, it was not enough to blunt the support for the legislation, particularly after Biden and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, N.Y., said they supported it.
“I’m going to vote yes. It was a close question. But on the balance, I’m voting yes,” Schumer said Tuesday.
The White House defended Biden’s backing as a sign of his support for anti-crime efforts despite also endorsing home rule for the district.