Senate won’t let D.C. off the hook, proceeds with planned slap-down of city’s contentious crime bill

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The D.C. Council said Monday it wants to withdraw an overhaul of its criminal code that weakened penalties for crimes like carjacking because Congress is poised to rescind the law under its constitutional authority.

But Capitol Hill rejected the local attempt to save face, saying the horse is out of the barn. The Senate is poised to vote on a disapproval resolution this week, and President Biden plans to sign it in a rare and notable rebuke of the liberal city.

“We still expect the vote to occur,” said a Senate leadership aide, adding that the chamber is acting on the House’s disapproval resolution and not the council’s transmission of the bill to Congress.

The District’s crime overhaul is so contentious that it split local leaders. The D.C. Council overrode Mayor Muriel Bowser, who vetoed the bill over concerns it would weaken too many penalties amid rising crime in the capital.

The House GOP majority exercised its constitutional power to block D.C. laws by passing a disapproval resolution with help from 30 House Democrats.

Several Senate Democrats say they will support the resolution, with fears of being painted as soft on crime trumping their support for the District’s push for autonomy.

“It’s clear that Congress is intending to override that legislation,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “It is no longer properly before the Congress.”

He said the move would allow the city to respond to feedback from Congress and fine-tune the bill.

“I don’t know that that will stop the Senate Republicans, but our position is that the bill is not before Congress any longer,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Mr. Mendelson characterized the debate as “mischief-making” from Republicans, despite Mr. Biden’s reluctance to veto the disapproval resolution.

The Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, said the District’s move would not stop Congress from rebuking the city.

“This desperate, made-up maneuver not only has no basis in the D.C. Home Rule Act, but underscores the completely unserious way the D.C. Council has legislated,” Mr. Hagerty said. “No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous D.C. soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe.”

Mr. Biden opposed the disapproval resolution in a statement of administration policy in early February, leading many House Democrats to vote against a GOP attempt to block the local bill that reduces maximum penalties for carjacking and other crimes in the District. 

The overhaul also allows defendants to seek jury trials for misdemeanor charges.

With the Senate vote looming, Mr. Biden revealed that he would not veto the measure, leaving some House Democrats confused and angering local politicians who say it is a major setback for home rule in the nation’s capital.

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