Senate votes to block D.C. crime laws, Biden supports

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is poised to block D.C.’s new crime laws and repeal city government…

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is poised to block new D.C. crime laws and abolish city government Wednesday, as lawmakers from both parties voiced concern over rising violent crime rates in cities across the country.

President Joe Biden said last week that he would sign the Republican resolution, which already passed the GOP-led House of Representatives last month. It would be the first time in more than three decades that Congress has overturned the capital’s laws through the impeachment process — and a reversal of Democrats’ longstanding position that the federal government should let the District of Columbia govern itself.

The vote comes amid a rise in violent crime in cities across the country. Biden, who is set to announce a re-election campaign in the coming months, is under increasing pressure from Republicans who have made reducing crime a political priority. In D.C., the city’s homicide rate rose for four consecutive years before falling by about 10% in 2022. The number of homicides in 2021, at 227, was the highest since 2003.

“We are the greatest superpower in history,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “This is our capital. But local politicians have allowed its streets to become a danger and an embarrassment.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s non-voting House delegate, abandoned the effort, speaking at a Hands Off D.C. rally before the vote.

“There are no exceptions and there is no middle ground for the District of Columbia’s right to self-governance,” Norton said.

A revision of the D.C. Penal Code was approved late last year by the D.C. Council after years of failed attempts. It will redefine crime, change criminal justice policy and re-engineer the way sentencing is delivered after convictions are delivered. It would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and lower the maximum sentences for burglary, auto theft and robbery.

Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the overhaul in January, writing in a letter that she had “very serious concerns” with some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrode her veto.

Senate Democrats who say they will support the measure have cited Bowser’s veto, saying it should be looked at again.

“What we’ve heard from the D.C. mayor is that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who said last week she would vote for the GOP measure.

The Penal Code of Washington, DC was originally written in 1901 and has received several partial updates since then. It contains many anachronistic details, such as a reference to steamboats and rules for the care and feeding of livestock transported through the city.

Criminal justice experts say black people are disproportionately affected by the current criminal justice system, as it is in many other cities.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelsohn and other council members argue that commutations for crimes such as carjacking still carry maximum sentences far higher than those chosen by the overwhelming majority of judges. They also point out that the current high maximum sentences have done little to curb the county’s rise in crime in recent years.

The revised criminal code is due to enter into force in October 2025. But to become law, it must go through a 60-day review period during which Congress and the president can override it, thanks to a 1970s law called the Home Rule Act. Although Congress has imposed various limits on DC through spending bills over the years, a formal override process has not been used since 1991.

Biden’s surprise decision to back the measure angered many House Democrats, such as Norton, who voted against the measure in the House after the White House announced opposition.

At the time, the White House did not directly say that Biden would veto the measure. But in a statement released ahead of the House vote, the White House said it opposed the resolution and called it an example of “how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-government and why it deserves statehood.”

“While we work to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state of our Union, Congress must respect the autonomy of the District of Columbia to govern its local affairs,” the White House said in a statement.

After announcing at a Senate Democratic luncheon last week that he would instead support the resolution, Biden tweeted that he supported Columbia’s statehood, but added: “I do not support some of the changes put forward by Columbia Council despite the mayor’s objections — for example, reducing fines for car theft.”

McConnell called Biden’s move a “trigger.”

“The public pressure has been so strong that the president is now saying he wants to sign the very Republican bill that he previously announced against,” McConnell said.

Most Senate Democrats are expected to support the bill, but not all are enthusiastic.

“I’m going to vote yes,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “It was a difficult question, but overall I vote yes.”

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or distributed.

Source link