WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to block a new District of Columbia criminal code that reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses, with Democrats bowing to Republican pressure to take a hard line on crime in a move that underscored the rising political potency of the issue ahead of the 2024 elections.
The 81-to-14 vote, with one senator voting “present,” cleared the Republican-written measure to undo the District’s law, sending it to President Biden, who after initially opposing it abruptly changed course last week and said he would sign it.
It was a sudden turn of events for the District’s council and its overhaul of local sentencing laws. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Biden weighed in against congressional action to block the measure, accusing Republicans of meddling in local affairs.
But the high-profile incidence of carjackings and homicides in the capital and growing nationwide evidence that voters were casting their ballots based on candidates’ response to violent crime spurred a rapid retreat. Dozens of House Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the District’s criminal code, and a growing number of Senate Democrats signaled they were inclined to follow suit, prompting Mr. Biden’s turnabout.
On Wednesday, 31 Democrats and two independents joined Republicans in supporting a resolution of disapproval of the criminal code, sending it to the president for his signature. Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, voted “present.”
Republicans, using the authority of Congress to review all District laws, forced the showdown in an effort to paint Democrats as weak on law enforcement. They said the outcome demonstrated that any trend toward leniency was at an end.
“We need to make certain that we send a strong message that the American public have had it with crime in America,” said Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, the chief Republican author of the resolution. “The crime spree that is happening in our major cities must come to an end.”
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
But if Democrats were hoping that their opposition to the new criminal code would stop Republican attacks on their party’s image on crime in next year’s elections, they were likely to be disappointed based on comments made by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader.
“Nobody will confuse Washington Democrats’ last-minute reversal on this one resolution for a road-to-Damascus moment on the crime issue,” Mr. McConnell said. “The American people are a lot smarter than that.”
The strong Senate vote against the criminal code — and an earlier one in the House that attracted 31 Democrats — was a significant setback for the autonomy of the District of Columbia, which in recent years had seemed to be gaining ground in its efforts to achieve statehood and had been left unhindered by a Congress under Democratic control. It was the first time in 30 years that a local law had been thwarted by Congress.
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Local officials lamented the interference and even tried to pull back the criminal code before it was rejected by the Senate. But the process to block it had already been set in motion, and Congress ignored the attempt to short-circuit the outcome.
The rewrite of the criminal code, which was years in the making, had split local officials as well. The law was vetoed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who was overridden by the District council. Her opposition, however, opened the door to Democrats abandoning their usual support of the District and voting in favor of overturning the law.
The White House’s handling of the issue angered House Democrats, who felt they were hung out to dry by the president after he said early last month that he would oppose the resolution of disapproval. As a result, when the matter came before the House in early February, most Democrats backed the District council and voted against the effort to rescind the sentencing package, believing they were siding with the president, who would veto it.
Instead, Mr. Biden arrived on Capitol Hill last week and told Senate Democrats in a private luncheon that he would sign the measure if it reached his desk, undercutting House Democrats and District officials. He said the crime legislation had gone too far even though he supported autonomy for the District of Columbia. White House officials noted that the president had never explicitly pledged to veto the measure, only that the administration opposed it.
Some Senate Democrats stood by the District and argued that its democratically elected officials should be free to write their own laws without being subjugated to Congress. Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who has been active on criminal justice issues, mounted a defense of the District’s law in a party luncheon on Tuesday, according to senators who attended.
In a speech on the floor on Wednesday, Mr. Booker called the intervention in District affairs “patronizing and paternalistic” and said it was meant to score political points. He noted that the new criminal code would significantly increase sentences for offenses such as attempted murder, sexual assault and gun crimes.
“This body now, in a rush of politics, is going to prevent a city from protecting itself,” Mr. Booker said.
But the president’s reversal, the mayor’s veto and rising public unease with violent crime drove most Democrats to rally behind blocking the law, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, as well as both senators from neighboring Virginia, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Mr. Kaine is among the senators up for re-election next year. Both Democrats from Maryland, the other adjoining state, Senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, voted “no.”
Taking advantage of their control of the House, Republicans have seized on the ability to undo Biden administration regulations to score political points under the arcane Congressional Review Act, which allows expedited review of resolutions of disapproval in the Senate and avoids a filibuster. The Senate last week approved a House-passed resolution scuttling some administration rules on investment of retirement funds. Mr. Biden has promised to veto that legislation.
The House is set on Friday to approve the reversal of a Biden administration regulation on water policy, which will force another Senate showdown on overturning a rule as early as next week. A veto threat has been lodged against that measure as well.