WASHINGTON — The Senate is set to vote Wednesday to overturn criminal law changes passed by the Washington, D.C., Council, a Republican-led measure that has divided Democrats and could undermine the movement for statehood.
“I’m going to vote yes. It was a close question, but on balance I’m voting yes,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters.
Many Democrats are expected to join Schumer in supporting the disapproval measure, and it’s all but certain to pass. But others, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., say they’ll vote to reject it on policy grounds and on the basis of supporting Washington’s sovereignty.
“These are sensible proposals to update a criminal justice code that hasn’t been changed since 1901. And the changes are in line with the majority of states around this country. Secondly, I believe in D.C. home rule. And third, the District itself is trying to withdraw this bill, and Congress’ efforts to go forward and vote on it anyway is just a way to try to exert power over 700,000 people who ought to have their own state,” Warren said in an interview.
The issue has tied Democrats in knots. The D.C. Council adopted changes late last year to remove most mandatory minimum sentences and lower mandatory maximum penalties, NBC Washington reported. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, only to have her veto overridden. Then, despite opposing the new law, she called on Congress to stay out of local affairs and not to intervene, citing Washington’s sovereignty.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke during the Democratic luncheon on Tuesday, imploring his colleagues to read the crime bill before voting.
“I’m just simply saying, I have never seen something like this in my 10 years,” Booker said of his speech to the caucus. “When you actually read the bill, compare it to criminal codes of other states, it is stunning to me that somehow this has been perverted and distorted to be seen as something that is some kind of lax loosening of penalties on people doing bad things.”
President Joe Biden shocked many Democrats last week when he told Senate Democrats in a closed-door lunch meeting that he would sign the bill to block it — even as he proclaimed his support for statehood and “home rule.”
Biden’s position comes as he seeks to blunt the GOP’s political assault on Democrats over crime before the expected launch of his re-election campaign. Biden has sought to distance himself from some on the left and back tough-on-crime measures.
“Led by the president, the Democrats are in full retreat on the D.C. criminal law issue,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., an opponent of D.C. statehood, told reporters. He said the Washington crime law represents “a correct time for federal intervention to protect our constituents and our staff.”
After Biden’s announcement, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson sought to withdraw the measure from Congress to prevent the vote, but Senate leadership aides said it was too late to pull it back.
The two Democratic senators from neighboring Maryland — Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — say they’ll vote against the disapproval bill, citing home rule. But the two Democrats from neighboring Virginia — Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — say they’ll vote to overturn the crime law.
Further complicating matters, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the lead sponsor of statehood legislation, said he will vote to intervene and undo the new law.
“They have asked us to literally return the bill,” he said.
Some Democrats who support D.C. statehood aren’t sold, with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who faces re-election in 2024, saying, “I think D.C. has to do it over again.”
“I do support D.C. statehood, and yet they are not yet a state and we do have those oversight responsibilities,” Baldwin said. “And the highest calling of a representative is to keep their constituents safe…whether that’s back in Wisconsin or whether that’s Wisconsinites coming to visit here or staff members who live here.”
Other proponents of statehood chastised the expected vote as antithetical to Washington’s sovereignty to write its own laws.
The Republican-led House voted 250-173 last month to block the measure — all 173 opponents were Democrats.
Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting representative, has condemned the bill and rebuked Biden for announcing he would sign it, calling it “a sad day for D.C. home rule and D.C. residents’ right to self-governance.”
Even staunch Biden allies in Democratic leadership say the White House mishandled the issue. Among them is Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who said the White House sent a “mixed signal” and could have communicated better.
“They gave a signal that led the House Democrats to take certain action. And the president then took a different position when he came to the Senate,” he said. “Speaks for itself.”