(WASHINGTON) — The Senate intends to move forward with a vote this week to revoke much-debated changes to Washington, D.C.’s criminal code even as the city council’s chairman sought Monday to withdraw the original legislation so that it could be revised and resubmitted.
The latest episode in the evolving controversy over the so-called D.C. crime bill began Monday when D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson delivered a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris in her capacity as president of the Senate confirming that the city would withdraw its criminal code revisions in order to make further changes and send them back to Congress at a future date.
Under the district’s unique status, Congress has ultimate authority over its laws.
“I’m quite clear in my letter that pulling it back means that the clock stops and it would have to be retransmitted to both houses, and that this will enable the council to work on the measure in light of congressional comments and to [be] retransmitted later. So, I will say I don’t know that that will stop the Senate Republicans. But our position is that the bill is not before Congress anymore,” Mendelson told reporters.
However, Senate leadership aides on both sides of the aisle told ABC News that Mendelson’s letter will not affect the vote or stop Congress from passing a resolution disapproving of the criminal code changes.
A Senate Democratic leadership staffer said that the authority granting Congress the power to green-light Washington laws does not allow for district legislation to be withdrawn after it is sent.
This person also said that the House measure to scrap the code changes, which was already passed, is what is receiving a vote in the Senate — rather than the Senate voting directly on the D.C. crime bill.
“We still expect the vote to occur,” the source said.
A senior GOP leadership aide confirmed the same, saying, “We will still vote and hold Democrats accountable for their soft on crime agenda.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer subsequently told reporters that the vote would be held Wednesday, though he didn’t say how he would cast his ballot.
The district city council last year unanimously passed changes to its criminal code. The revisions, in development for some 16 years, would mark the first major update to the code since its inception in 1901.
Among the changes, it would reduce maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, robbery and other offenses, scrap some mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and expand jury trials for some misdemeanors. The penalties for other crimes, such as attempted murder and attempted sexual assault, would increase.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation but the council overrode her veto in a 12-1 vote in January. Some on the council cited the “robust and healthy debate” that went into the revisions while others said there would still be several years to pass amendments before the changes would take effect.
The legislation was then sent to Congress for approval, under the Home Rule Act.
The House’s Republican majority, with the help of 31 Democrats, in February passed a bill disapproving of the legislation. Sen Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., sponsored an identical resolution to quash the crime bill and a number of Senate Democrats — from conservative to liberal — have told ABC that they plan to vote with Republicans.
The criminal code changes and the resulting backlash in Congress have stirred debate among Democrats about the best approach to public safety while respecting the autonomy of the nation’s capital.
This is the first time in 30 years that Congress is using this power over D.C. and Democrats have reversed their normal support of the district’s independence in the face of GOP criticism and in the wake of high-profile Democratic losses in Chicago and New York, where crime and public safety have become major concerns.
President Joe Biden waded into the debate when he said last week that he would not veto the disapproval resolution if it passes, though the White House previously said it opposed Congress intervening and repeated a call for D.C. statehood.
“One thing the president believes in is making sure that the streets in America and communities across the country are safe,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters last week. “That includes D.C.”
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said that she wished the president “told us first” before House Democrats voted in support of the new criminal code.
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