WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress moved closer on Monday to blocking changes to the District of Columbia’s criminal code, potentially setting up a politically charged veto fight with President Biden as the party works to capitalize on fears of rising crime in the run-up to the 2024 campaign.
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, told reporters as the Senate returned that he would join Republicans in voting to overturn a new Washington, D.C., sentencing law that reduced penalties on a variety of criminal offenses, leaving them just one vote short of forcing the bill out of Congress and to the White House.
“None of that makes sense to me,” Mr. Manchin said about lowering mandatory minimum sentences. “I would rescind letting people out,” he added, saying that offenders “know what they can get by with all over the country.”
Senate Republicans hope to marshal the votes as early as next week to send Mr. Biden the legislation that would block a recently enacted package of local laws that lowered or eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses, including carjacking. The White House has expressed its opposition, though officials have yet to issue a direct veto threat.
The changes in punishment came despite a wave of homicides, carjackings and property crimes in Washington that has many residents on edge and asking if now is the time to back away from strong deterrence. Congressional Republicans have seized the moment and are pressuring Democrats to join them in cracking down or be portrayed as lax on enforcement, part of an effort to make crime across the country a political issue.
Most Democrats oppose the bid to get involved in the District’s business, but dozens from conservative-leaning districts quietly embraced it in the House, reflecting concerns that the rollback of sentences was too drastic and a recognition of the risks of being labeled soft on crime. Similar attempts at enacting more progressive sentencing and bail laws have sparked a political backlash around the country, including in San Francisco, where a prosecutor was ousted for perceived leniency toward offenders, and New York, where Mayor Eric Adams was elected with a tough-on-crime message.
The House passed the bill to roll back the D.C. criminal code revisions this month with 31 Democrats in favor. With all 49 Senate Republicans in support, its sponsors say they expect to be able to break away at least the two Democrats in that chamber needed to send the measure to the White House. Mr. Biden would then face the first veto decision of his presidency on a subject likely to be front and center in next year’s elections.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
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“I can’t believe President Biden wants to encourage more crime here in the District of Columbia,” said Senator Bill Hagerty, a first-term Republican from Tennessee who is the chief backer of what is known as a resolution of disapproval.
Most Democrats assert that it is none of Congress’s business what locally elected officials in Washington do, though the Constitution gives lawmakers final say over District laws.
“The United States Congress should be not substituting its judgment for the elected representatives of the people of the District of Columbia,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from neighboring Maryland.
The dispute is the result of a decision by the district council, over a veto by Mayor Muriel Bowser and objections from the local police union, to rewrite the criminal code, lessening criminal penalties for a range of violent and property offenses at a time when district residents have grown increasingly uneasy about the incidence of such crimes.
Like other communities around the country, the District of Columbia has been plagued by a rash of high-profile crimes — many by juveniles — as the pandemic wound down. According to the police, homicides are up 40 percent so far over the past year, and car thefts have more than doubled. While carjackings are down slightly so far this year, their frequency has jumped significantly over the past three years, with reports flooding social media. Overall, the police report that violent crime has fallen slightly, but Republicans have hammered away anyway, arguing the sentencing changes will escalate crime.
Authors of the overhaul of the criminal code said the changes were carefully weighed in consultation with experts and that they brought punishments more in line with the sentences being handed down in court. But that reasoning did not satisfy Republicans in the House and Senate, who said they were justified in stepping in because of their concern for staff members and constituents.
“We work here, our staff lives here and our constituents come visit the nation’s capital almost every single day that the Capitol is open,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “And we want to make sure all of them are safe.”
Conservative Republicans have for years taken aim at progressive policies in the overwhelmingly Democratic and predominantly nonwhite District of Columbia, using budget bills to try to dictate policy on abortion rights, drug enforcement and education among other issues.
The District of Columbia was granted home rule in 1973, but Congress retained the power to review its laws. Still, no local law has been overturned by Congress through a “resolution of disapproval” in more than 30 years — and that has only happened three times in history.
But the Republican-controlled House voted on Feb. 9 to block both the criminal code rewrite and a second law that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.
The criminal code overhaul is getting the most attention in Congress because of its potential political potency and the prospect that it could draw bipartisan support in the Senate. Among the 31 Democrats who backed the resolution in the House was Representative Angie Craig of Minnesota, who had fended off an attacker in the elevator of her apartment building about a mile from the Capitol just hours before the vote.
Another Democrat who voted to block the D.C. law was Representative Mike Thompson, a 12-term lawmaker from Northern California, who noted that both the mayor and police officials supported some revisions in the code but said the final product “was just a step too far.”
“I think we ought to be looking at ways to make the world safer for our constituents, not less safe,” Mr. Thompson said.
A majority of Democrats condemned the Republican-led effort and pointed out that it clashed with oft-voiced Republican enthusiasm for states’ rights and local government control.
Under the special rules for considering such resolutions of disapproval, its backers can force a floor vote after certain time requirements are met. Republicans need only a simple majority to pass it and send it to the president, rather than the 60 votes typically required in the Senate to bring legislation to a final vote. With all Republicans on board, backers need only two Democrats to join them, and Mr. Manchin cut that goal in half. Republicans also have their eyes on Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, who has not yet made his position known, among others.
Both men are up for re-election next year in states that Donald J. Trump carried in 2020.
Before the House vote, the Biden administration came out against the resolution and instead endorsed statehood for the District of Columbia.
“For far too long, the 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C., have been deprived of full representation in the U.S. Congress,” the administration said in a policy statement that also opposed the resolution taking aim at noncitizen voting.
Even if the resolution were to clear Congress, Democrats are confident its backers would not have enough votes to override a veto, should Mr. Biden exercise one. But Republicans relish the prospect of sending the president legislation he opposes.
“I do believe there is a very good chance that we will have a number of Democrat senators who want to join us because they see the same issues we do,” Mr. Hagerty said.
“I think,” he added, “the White House is going to have to evaluate the politics of the matter and think about their own safety too.”
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.