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The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed a GOP-led resolution that will strike down a rewrite of the nation’s capital’s penal code by Washington, DC’s liberal city council. The legislation now heads to the desk of President Biden, who surprised congressional Democrats when he announced last week that he would not veto the measure.
The vote has exposed divisions within Democratic ranks over how to deal with widespread concerns about crime and public safety, that the party has historically lagged Republicans when it comes to voter trust.
The measure passed the Senate 81-14. Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, voted with Republicans to pass it. One senator voted present. The measure only requires a simple majority to pass. Last month, 31 House Democrats voted with all Republicans to pass the measure even before the president made his position known.
“What we have is a DC city council that seems to be completely hell-bent on getting some kind of red flag about criminal justice reform, rather than caring about the safety of people who come to visit and those who reside in this city,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., a main sponsor of the resolution, told NPR.
The DC bill is the product of a years-long review that involved various stakeholders in the criminal justice system. It passed unanimously by the DC council, but was vetoed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. His veto was overridden, but his opposition helped fuel Republican arguments, and Biden’s concern, that the bill could be perceived as too soft on crime at a time when homicide and car theft rates are rising. in the city. according to police data.
At stake in what was a broad but uncontroversial effort to reform DC’s criminal statutes are provisions to reduce maximum penalties for crimes like armed robbery from 40 to 24 years, which, according to supporters, is in line with actual court rulings in recent years.
There were also objections to a provision to expand the right to jury trials for certain misdemeanors, which critics say would overburden a burdened DC court system and result in prosecutors dropping more cases.
Those arguments, and Biden’s endorsement of the Republican position, were enough for Democrats like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who sided with the Republicans. He noted that hundreds of thousands of Virginians commute to Washington, D.C. every day.
“If we somehow sent a message that, okay, are we going to reduce the carjacking fine? That doesn’t pass the sniff test,” he told NPR. Warner acknowledged that his party has found it harder to win over voters when crime is a top concern.
“I think there could be a Democratic House if people had handled crime differently. [in 2022],” he said.
The split frustrated Democrats like Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who voted against the Republican resolution. He said what was lost in the debate was that the revised code would also improve penalties for firearms offenses, a top Democratic priority.
“I don’t think it’s out of the mainstream, but I don’t think that’s how the Republicans presented it, and I don’t think we were effective in countering that because we were looking at it from a process standpoint.” he said.
The resolution also drew support from Democrats from red-red states like Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who are up for re-election next year. Tester has already announced his intention to return to racing, but Manchin has not disclosed his plans. Tester told NPR that he supported it because “from a law enforcement perspective, it’s the right thing to do.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Democrats in lengthy Senate speech
McConnell’s speech on Tuesday barely concealed the party’s intention to use crime problems against Democrats in 2024, when Republicans have a favorable chance of regaining a majority.
“We cannot have public safety in this country only in rare cases, when a closely divided Republican House and Senate can force Democrats to do the right thing against their will,” McConnell said.
The fate of DC’s crime bill will now return to the DC council, where Chairman Phil Mendelson has already grudgingly said that officials will try to rework the bill to appease both. Biden and Congress.
Mendelson tried to get ahead of the Senate vote by informing senators earlier this week that the council make changes to the bill, but the Senate vote proceeded independently to get lawmakers on record.
“I think the White House position is to protect Democrats in Congress, that’s what I think,” Mendelson said. “This is next year’s campaign, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about making videos saying ‘Senator so-and-so voted to go soft on crime in the District of Columbia,’ and nobody wants that message against him.” .