Skip to content

Senate votes to overturn DC criminal code changes

The measure divided Senate Democrats

D.C. statehood activists in the Hands Off DC March & Rally begin their march from Union Station to the Capitol on Wednesday.
D.C. statehood activists in the Hands Off DC March & Rally begin their march from Union Station to the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate cleared a disapproval resolution Wednesday to block a District of Columbia bill that would have overhauled the criminal code, sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The measure passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 81-14, with 33 senators who caucus with Democrats supporting the Republican-led measure. Biden has said he will sign it, which would make it the first such resolution regarding the district to take effect in more than 30 years.

Just 14 members who caucus with Democrats voted against the measure, including Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., voted present.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., who put forth the resolution, said in an interview Wednesday before the vote that he expected it to pass with support from “a large number of Democrats.”

“We’re looking at a highly irresponsible piece of legislation that the D.C. City Council has proposed that would incentivize more crime at a time that we’re in the midst of a crime wave,” Hagerty said.

The resolution, which passed the House last month with bipartisan support, would overturn the D.C. Council’s recent bill that revamps the local criminal code. The bill would reduce certain criminal penalties in D.C. and expanded the right to a jury trial for misdemeanor cases, among other changes.

Under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress has final say over bills passed by the D.C. Council and controls the D.C. budget.

Democrats divided

The move has divided Democrats and led to criticism of Biden, who initially released a statement opposing the Republican-led disapproval resolution but later, after it passed the House, tweeted he would sign it if it passed.

Some Senate Democrats said Wednesday ahead of the planned vote that they intended to vote in favor of the resolution, giving the measure, which can pass the chamber with a simple majority, well above the number of votes needed.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who voted for the resolution, said he worried the D.C. crime bill “sends the wrong signal” for crimes including carjacking, one of the offenses for which the bill would lower the maximum penalty.

“I’ve got hundreds of thousands of Virginians who go to work in D.C. every day,” Warner said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., an original co-sponsor on separate Senate legislation that would make D.C. a state, also said she supported the resolution against the D.C. crime bill. She said while she still supports D.C. statehood, “we don’t have statehood yet.”

“There’s no more important issue than safety, whether that’s my staff members who live and work in the district or constituents who come to visit, meet with their representatives and senators,” Baldwin said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., voted in favor of the resolution.

Other Senate Democrats, however, have stood by the D.C. Council. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she opposes the resolution because the criminal code revisions bring the D.C. code “into line with the middle of most states, red and blue.”

“But even more importantly, D.C. citizens should be accorded the same right to pick their elected representatives and have those representatives determine the criminal laws, the same way as every other state in the union,” Warren said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland called the resolution “an attack on the democratic rights of the people of the District of Columbia.”

“Its residents, its citizens, are fully capable of deciding their own law, and deciding their own future. The Congress should not be overriding the will of the people of D.C.,” Van Hollen said on the Senate floor.

Republican reaction

Republicans saw advantage in the division among Democrats. “Led by the president, the Democrats are in full retreat on the D.C. criminal law issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Tuesday.

House Republican Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., told reporters on Wednesday morning that Democrats are “scrambling,” and that Democrats who voted against the resolution in the House “now have to explain to their constituents how they are in the most radical, pro-criminal members of their party.”

“Make no mistake: Democrats remain the pro-criminal, anti-law enforcement party. This is some serious Monday morning quarterbacking from the party that knows its soft-on-crime policies have led to losses in the past two election cycles,” Emmer said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the Democratic caucus chairman, said at a Wednesday press conference that House Democrats voted against the D.C. crime bill resolution out of respect for D.C.’s home rule, but he lamented that Biden had not more clearly communicated his position on the measure.

“I think that the communication could have been better from down the street at Pennsylvania. I’ve said that I was disappointed. That holds true,” Aguilar said.

Controversial bill

The measure passed over the protests of Democrat Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting representative in the House. At a rally earlier on Wednesday, Norton called on Biden and Congress to “keep your hands off D.C.” and said the move to nullify a D.C. bill is “undemocratic.”

“None of the 535 voting members of Congress were elected by D.C. residents. None of them are accountable to D.C. residents. Yet if they vote in favor of the disapproval resolution, they are choosing to substitute their policy judgments for the judgment of D.C.’s elected leaders,” Norton said at the rally, according to a copy of her prepared remarks.

Norton had also urged her House colleagues last month to vote against the resolution to scrap the crime bill. Ultimately, 31 House Democrats joined with Republicans to pass that resolution, while 42 Democrats voted in favor of a second resolution to nullify a D.C. bill that would let noncitizen residents vote in local elections. A Senate effort to rescind the D.C. noncitizen voting law is still pending.

The crime law disapproval resolution, if enacted, would be the fourth to take effect since D.C. established home rule 50 years ago.

According to Norton’s office, only three disapproval resolutions against D.C. bills have ever been enacted: in 1979, 1981 and 1991. The House passed a disapproval resolution to nix a D.C. law related to employment discrimination in 2015, but the effort died in the Senate and never took effect.

The rare disapproval resolution vote comes after the D.C. crime bill generated controversy locally.

The D.C. Council advanced the legislation in November, but Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals.

The Council nonetheless overrode the mayor’s veto, teeing up the bill to take effect in 2025.

Earlier this month, after Biden indicated he would not veto a resolution that would overturn the bill, the D.C. Council attempted to rescind the legislation. Senate leaders nonetheless decided to move forward with the vote.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito called the D.C. Council’s attempted withdrawal “a glaring admission by the council that they knew what they were doing is absolutely wrong.”

“But you know what? It’s simply too little, too late,” Capito said. “Today’s vote to reject the D.C. Council’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 puts every member on record.”

Recent Stories

Iranian retaliatory attack on Israel flips script as Biden had pressed for changes in Gaza

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill