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As city backtracks, Senate vote on DC criminal changes going ahead

Aide: Home Rule Act does not ‘allow for a withdrawal of a transmission’

Washington, D.C., Council Chairman Phil Mendelson testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 22, 2021.
Washington, D.C., Council Chairman Phil Mendelson testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 22, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has rejected a plea from the Democratic chairman of the District of Columbia Council to cancel a planned vote on a House-passed measure that would block the District’s new criminal code.

Chairman Phil Mendelson said Monday he sent Senate leaders a letter stating he is withdrawing the Council bill that would revise the revised code, which was enacted over the veto of Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser. But Schumer’s staff quickly fired back, noting that the Senate would not be taking up the Council’s measure specifically.

“Not only does the statute not allow for a withdrawal of a transmission, but at this point the Senate Republican privileged motion will be acting on the House disapproval resolution, rather than the DC Council’s transmission to the Senate,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said in an email. “We still expect the vote to occur.”

The chamber could vote as early as Wednesday to block the revised criminal code.

“I think just pulling it back and assessing what the next step is and looking at some of the issues, explaining better what the legislation does and does not do, so that will take some time,” Mendelson said Monday, according to reports.

President Joe Biden has come under fire from many Democrats for saying he would sign the measure after his administration had urged Congress not to pass it. The measure in the House received 219 GOP votes and 31 from Democrats, many in competitive districts. The critics are upset with the president for bucking “home rule,” under which District officials tend to the capital city’s business but Congress can review and reject municipal legislation. If lawmakers do so, the president has to decide whether to go along.

“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted last week. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

The Council’s bill would overhaul the criminal statutes by reducing sentences and expanding the right to jury trials for misdemeanor cases. It drew howls from many GOP members as an example, to them, of big-city leaders refusing to get tough on rising crime.

Bowser vetoed the measure partly out of fear that the District’s court system would be unable to function effectively, should many charged with misdemeanors request a jury, she has said. Biden’s decision comes amid an uptick in some crimes inside the District and continues his complicated track record with the hot-button issue.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Friday ticked off a list of provisions in D.C.’s bill, citing them as reasons Biden decided to support the House measure: “It reduces maximum penalties for offenses like murders and other homicides; armed home invasion burglaries; armed carjackings, as I mentioned; armed robberies; unlawful gun possession; and some sexual assault offenses.”

“The President has been very clear we need to do more to reduce crime, to make communities safer, to save lives,” Jean-Pierre added.

Many supporters of allowing the new criminal code to go into place, notably, have focused largely on home rule, saying Biden essentially threw out his stated support of keeping a federal hand out of D.C. business.

“Today has been a sad day for D.C. home-rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance, which President Biden himself highlighted in his administration’s Statement of Administration Policy issued mere weeks ago,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said.

The White House has countered that argument by noting the statement of administration policy issued before the House vote did not explicitly say Biden would veto it, nor that his senior aides would recommend he do so. Those are the two designations typically included in SAPs when White House officials are substantially opposed to legislation and want to prevent it from becoming law.

Norton also accused some Senate Democrats who have signaled or stated their intention to vote with Bowser and Biden of thinking more about their own reelection chances.

“We had hoped that with more Senate support, we would have been able to ensure that neither disapproval resolution pending before the Senate would reach the president’s desk, but with the nationwide increase in crime, most senators do not want to be seen as supporting criminal justice reform,” she said in a March 2 statement.

But on Feb. 28, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Washington, D.C., issues are national issues.”

The concept of D.C. officials handling their own business is established by the Home Rule Act. But its “disapproval mechanism does not establish any parliamentary procedures governing consideration of a joint resolution of disapproval after its initial passage in its chamber of origin,” states a Feb. 27 Congressional Research Service report.

“The disapproval procedure has been used infrequently, and the chambers would likely have to interpret how some of its facets operate in practice — a decision each would potentially make in consultation with its Parliamentarian,” according to CRS. “The parliamentary provisions of the act are considered to be rules of the House and Senate, and each chamber is free to establish how a disapproval resolution is considered in that chamber by unanimous consent or by a special rule reported by the House Committee on Rules.”

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