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House passes resolutions to block DC voting, criminal code changes

First time House has passed a disapproval resolution against a D.C. bill since 2015

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks during a news conference.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks during a news conference. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House passed resolutions Thursday to overturn District of Columbia bills that would allow immigrants to vote in local elections and reduce criminal penalties, the first time the chamber has voted to nix local measures in eight years.

The House voted 260-162 to pass the disapproval resolution against a D.C. bill to allow noncitizen voting, with 42 House Democrats voting in favor of the Republican-led measure. The chamber also voted 250-173 to pass a second disapproval measure against a rewrite of the D.C. criminal code, which 31 House Democrats supported.

Democratic Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., had urged her colleagues to vote against both resolutions, which now head to the Democrat-controlled Senate.

After the House votes, Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., who chairs the House Oversight and Accountability Committee and led the noncitizen voting resolution, said Congress “must ensure that these terrible laws do not take effect.” He also called on the Senate to “take the next step so that we can protect the American people from the D.C. Council’s path of destruction.”

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have both introduced counterpart resolutions related to D.C.’s noncitizen voting bill. Neither have any Democratic co-sponsors.

Any resolutions would need to be approved by President Joe Biden, whose administration sent out a statement of policy earlier this week opposing both House resolutions. The administration said in a statement the measures are “clear examples of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood,” but did not explicitly say whether he would veto them.

Home Rule

Republicans’ move is authorized under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, which allowed D.C. residents to elect their own mayor and council but also gave Congress final say over bills passed by that council and control over D.C.’s budget. The law gives Congress 60 days since enactment to overturn certain types of criminal bills and 30 days to overturn other legislation.

Such resolutions have rarely succeeded historically. According to the office of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., only three disapproval resolutions against D.C. bills have ever been enacted: in 1979, 1981 and 1991.

According to Norton’s office, Thursday’s votes mark the first time that the House has passed a disapproval resolution against a D.C. bill since 2015, when Republicans voted down a D.C. bill that would ban employers from discriminating against employees over their reproductive health decisions.

Speaking on the House floor earlier this week, Norton called the House measures “profoundly undemocratic, paternalistic resolutions.” She also highlighted that the House of Representatives, where D.C. residents do not have a voting representative, is attempting to nullify a bill passed by the local legislature, whose members D.C. residents did elect.

Norton further called on the House to pass her bill that would make D.C. a state and give it voting representatives.

“D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black and brown, are worthy and capable of governing themselves,” she said Wednesday during floor debate on the resolutions.

“Keep your hands off D.C.,” Norton added.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said ahead of the vote that the two D.C. bills “will dilute the vote of American citizens and endanger city residents and visitors.”

More recently, Congress has used its power over the D.C. budget to insert policy riders in government spending bills that have prohibited the sale of marijuana in D.C. and banned D.C. from using its Medicaid funds to fund abortions for low-income residents.

Controversial measures

Both bills, which the D.C. Council passed late last year, have generated controversy.

The criminal bill would overhaul D.C.’s criminal statute for the first time since 1901, including by reducing sentences and expanding the right to a jury trial for misdemeanor cases. The D.C. Council advanced the bill in November.

But the legislation, which would take effect in 2025, earned pushback from law enforcement. The D.C. Police Union said in a statement that the bill “will lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.” And in January, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals.

Bowser specifically cited provisions that would reduce penalties for criminal offenses related to firearm possession as well as for robberies, burglaries and home invasions.

Nonetheless, the D.C. Council overrode her veto. Earlier this week, Bowser unveiled a revised version of the criminal code legislation that her office said would remove some of the more contested provisions in the earlier version.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., who introduced the disapproval resolution against the criminal bill, said on the floor ahead of the vote Thursday that the bill “will undoubtedly embolden criminals and threaten the safety of both residents and visitors here in Washington, D.C.”

The other measure would allow foreign citizens residing in D.C., including undocumented immigrants, to vote in local elections. That bill passed the D.C. Council in October. Bowser did not act on the bill, allowing it to be enacted without her signature.

Congressional Republicans argued that legislation undermines election integrity and aggravates migration challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Comer, the leader of the resolution, said in a news release last month that the noncitizen voting bill “will only exacerbate the ongoing border crisis, subvert the voices of American citizens, and open the door for foreign adversaries to peddle influence in our nation’s capital.”

If the bill stands, D.C. would join more than a dozen municipalities across the country that already allow some foreign citizens to vote in certain local elections, including multiple jurisdictions in Maryland and Vermont as well as San Francisco.

New York City recently became the largest city in the country to pass its own law that would allow some foreign-born residents, including green card holders and other foreign citizens with legal work permits, to vote in local races. But it was struck down in court last year following a challenge by Republican officials.

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