Updated Mar 8, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Senate votes to block changes to D.C.'s crime law

U.S. Capitol

Photo: Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

The Senate voted on Wednesday to block changes to Washington, D.C.’s criminal code that would have reduced penalties for some violent crimes, marking the first time Congress approved overturning local D.C. legislation since 1991.

Why it matters: An increase in carjackings and gun violence in the nation’s capital catapulted the bill to national prominence, leading President Biden and many Democrats to side with Republicans as they try to position themselves as tough on crime ahead of 2024.

Driving the news: Senators passed the measure 81-14.

  • Joining Republicans in support were 33 Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), bucking their party’s support for D.C. statehood hours after city lawmakers and activists protested outside the Capitol.
  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), in an unorthodox move for the Senate, voted “present” on the resolution.

What they're saying: “Violent crime has become an epidemic in America," said Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), the author of the Senate overturn resolution, before the vote. "This resolution is a referendum on it."

  • Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said the vote serves as a blueprint for divided control of Congress. "There will be lots of other [disapproval resolutions]," he said.
  • "The Dems, ideologically, got locked into a position and realized as a political matter they couldn't sustain it," he said.

What we're hearing: House Republicans, who have been using their majority to force Democrats to vote on sensitive wedge issues, took a victory lap on D.C. crime at their conference meeting Wednesday morning, according to an aide and a member in the room.

The other side: D.C. Council members and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) joined dozens of statehood activists marching to the Capitol in protest, decrying the intervention as a low point in local self-governance. Many local Democrats have complained the GOP has ginned up controversy about the bill to score political points.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), before voting against the measure, said in the Senate chamber that Congress "should not be big footing" D.C.
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser, a moderate Democrat who had opposed the council’s changes to the criminal code, was notably absent from the protest.
  • Bowser initially declined to lobby against Congress overturning the bill, before she eventually joined other city leaders to urge Senators against intervention.

Between the lines: Before it snowballed into a bipartisan triumph, the effort to overturn the crime law began as a long shot from conservatives who have made it a point to scrutinize D.C.

  • Off that success, House Republicans this week released attack ads against vulnerable Democrats who had voted against blocking the criminal code.
  • House Democrats have communicated to the White House their frustrations — "Rip roarin' pissed," one member said of the mood — about Biden not making his position on the resolution clear before the House vote.

Go deeper:

What's in the crime law fueling a showdown between D.C. leaders and Congress

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that John Thune is the Senate minority whip, not the Senate minority leader.

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