If you listened to Senate floor speeches Wednesday, you heard, over and over, about how the city of Washington, D.C., is an irradiated hellscape where anyone can, and will, be murdered. And how Congress alone can save it.
The District, lamented Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, “no longer belongs to the people. The city now belongs to the criminals.” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst explained that the “sad reality is no one is off-limits to the criminals running rampant in our capital.”
“No one is safe,” Ernst warned.
On Thursday, these arguments won, big. The Senate voted 81–14, with Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock voting present, to block the D.C. government’s revised criminal code, a years-in-the-making initiative that has been subject to substantial distortion by pundits about what it actually does. The floodgates had opened after President Biden made a surprise announcement that he wouldn’t veto the bill—effectively freeing Congress to squash the product of 16 years of work to reform outdated, confusing, and often arbitrary laws.
[Read about what was actually going to change under D.C.’s revised criminal code.]
This effort by Republicans, who organized to block the code, was a wild success. We are looking at a situation where Joe Biden will soon sign a criminal justice bill introduced in the House by Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde, who is most famous for having said in 2021 that the Jan. 6 riots resembled a “normal tourist visit.”
How did this get so far?
It’s simple: Democrats’ fear of looking “soft on crime” runs deep.
First it was the House Republicans who wanted to put their Democratic counterparts in a tough spot. To do so, they used a disapproval mechanism under the Home Rule Act that gives Congress a window of time to nullify recently passed laws in D.C. It was a bit of a setup: This scenario would force Democrats to choose between their commitment to D.C. self-government and their fear of being tagged as crime-loving criminals in campaign ads. (There’s been an almost obsessive focus in the media on the revised criminal code’s lowering of maximum penalties on armed carjacking—a serious problem in D.C. these days—even though the “lower” number would be 24 years, which is still substantially longer than the longest carjacking sentences that judges mete out today.)
Thirty-one House Democrats, many of them in vulnerable districts, eschewed looking “soft on crime” and voted for the bill in early February. But Democratic leaders whipped against the measure to make sure it didn’t hit a veto-proof majority. They had reason to believe Biden would veto it, after all. Three days before the vote, the White House released an official Statement of Administration Policy, which stated that Biden opposed the Republican measure. (It did not say, flat-out, that Biden would veto it.)
When the resolution reached the Senate, its passage was likely there, too. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer couldn’t refuse to give it a vote, procedurally, and it wasn’t subject to a 60-vote filibuster. All it needed to pass was all of the Republicans and a couple of Democratic votes from the pool of the many, many Senate Democrats facing difficult reelection fights. But as long as there weren’t 67 votes, Biden’s eventual veto could be sustained.
Then, last week, Biden told Senate Democrats during a weekly lunch that he would not veto it—indeed, he would sign it. The reason he highlighted? Carjackings.
And as soon as Biden made that announcement, Senate Democrats looking for cover rushed to take Biden’s side. (And House Democrats, who are deeply unhappy, wondered where this cover was when they could’ve used it.) Sen. Patty Murray, a liberal representing Washington state who just won a fresh term in 2016, told reporters, “I’ll be voting the same way the president is.” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is also quite vulnerable, used the same phrase. Out and out they kept coming. On Monday, the D.C. Council said it would withdraw the crime bill. And on Tuesday, Schumer announced that he, too, would vote to squash D.C.’s criminal code.
“I’m going to vote yes,” Schumer said. “It was a close question, but on balance I’m voting yes.”
A reporter began a follow-up question.
“Next!” Schumer said.
Democrats don’t love to talk about this issue, as Republicans are successfully wielding it to cleave them apart. During Wednesday’s debate, few if any Democrats voting with those Republicans came to defend their position. A few of the Democrats who did vote against the resolution, though, came to defend theirs.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen noted that the revised D.C. code would have higher maximum sentences for attempted murder, among other crimes, than Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s own state of Kentucky.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made a similar point, noting that D.C.’s armed carjacking convictions would have “a maximum penalty higher than Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota, Kentucky.”
“Maybe,” Booker added, “we should do a unanimous consent right now saying that Kentucky is too soft on crime, because D.C. wants higher maximum penalties?”
I tried to ask both Booker and Van Hollen after their speeches why their view hadn’t prevailed among so many of their fellow Democrats. Is it just 2024 politics? They didn’t love the question.
“I don’t want to speak to my colleagues’ position on this vote,” Van Hollen told me.
“You guys are focusing on the political analysis,” Booker told me. “I’m focused on the actual law, and I hope more people will start writing about a bill that literally does more to protect police officers, victims of sexual assault, children who are victims of sexual assault. My prayer is that people will start looking at the facts of this bill and not let it be so distorted without very many people writing the truth.”
But did he think his fellow Democratic senators hadn’t been looking at the facts?
“I’m not saying that at all,” he said.