Senate Democrats could join Republicans in voting to reject DC’s new criminal code


(WASHINGTON) — Senate Republicans, joined by some Democratic colleagues, may soon send legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk to rescind changes to Washington, D.C.’s criminal code that were opposed by the district’s mayor but overwhelmingly supported by its city council.

The Senate legislation, being led in the chamber by Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., would roll back a newly-passed package that, among other things, expands the requirement for jury trials and reduces penalties for some violent crimes, including robberies and carjackings, while punishments for other crimes would increase.

The so-called crime bill, which has been worked on for more than 16 years by local officials and was unanimously passed by the city council last year, has come under fire from some lawmakers and activists in D.C. — including Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat.

Under the district’s unique status, Congress has ultimate jurisdiction over its laws.

Congressional republicans say the new criminal code will worsen public safety in the nation’s capital while its supporters, including on the city council, have said it is a necessary and nuanced set of revisions to century-old laws. (Experts say the underlying data shows the reality of how criminal sentencing is imposed is more complicated than it may appear when comparing the new and old criminal codes.)

The House’s Republican majority, along with 31 House Democrats, last month approved a bill to block the new criminal code.

On Monday, Senate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia breathed new life into the legislation’s prospects of passing the chamber, narrowly controlled by Democrats, by announcing his intention to support it.

“You’ve got to send a signal you’re not going to slap them [criminals] on the wrist. They know exactly what they can get by with all over the country,” Manchin said.

The proposal is expected to come to the Senate floor under a special procedural tool that exempts it from some of the usual hurdles. It will only require a simple majority of votes to pass.

With Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., out for an indefinite length of time while he receives treatment for clinical depression at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Manchin’s support coupled with that of all Republicans in the chamber clears a pathway for passage.

Separately, when asked if he would support the GOP effort to quash the new criminal code and oppose his party’s leadership, Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said, “It’s not looking good.” But he did add that he needed to get briefed by his staff.

Joe Biden’s administration has said it opposes such a move without guaranteeing a veto. That sets up a potentially fraught political predicament for the president, who is expected to soon announce his 2024 campaign, given how Republicans have and continue to emphasize public safety and crime as major concerns.

Both Manchin and Tester are also up for reelection next year in states where the GOP dominates.

“Democrats want to debate anything and everything besides violent crime itself, because the modern Democratic Party and its coalitions have decided it’s more important to have compassion for serial violent felons than for innocent citizens who just want to live their lives,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said during a floor speech on Monday focused on the D.C. law. “That’s the issue here: a binary choice. Should we be softer on crime, like Democrats want, at the local, state and federal levels? Or should we be tougher on crime, like Republicans and the American people want?”

Hagerty said Tuesday he expects a vote on his bill could come up in the Senate as soon as next week. He’s confident it will pass, with the support of perhaps even more than one Democrat, he said on Tuesday.

“I think a number of Democrats are looking at this very hard,” he said. “The attempt by some to conflate D.C. statehood and what should be just public safety concerns I think is very misguided, and I think some of my colleagues are waking up to that.”

Hagerty was referring to a renewed push among some in D.C. to grant the district statehood so that it would not be subject to Congress’ authority over its laws.

The White House previously issued a statement decrying congressional action on D.C.’s criminal code.

“Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs,” read an administration statement issued last month, which advocated for D.C. statehood.

During a press gaggle on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton referred reporters back to that statement.

“But broadly speaking, the president has been clear that we have to do more to reduce crime and save lives and he has outlined how he anticipates we should do so in his ‘safer America’ plan,” Dalton said.

Many Senate Democrats share the administration’s view that D.C. ought to be able to govern itself.

“I’m a home rule guy,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Tuesday. “I tend to believe we shouldn’t be micromanaging what D.C. does. D.C. elects a city council and mayor and they have the complete capacity to judge their actions and decide if they want different people.”

The public safety issue has divided D.C.’s local government as crimes like carjacking have been on the rise. Mayor Bowser vetoed the council’s bill in January. But her veto was overridden.

ABC News’ Beatrice Peterson, Ben Gittleson, Alexandra Hutzler and Trish Turner contributed to this report.

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