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Biden could face a veto test over controversial DC crime bill End-shutdown




WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are working to block changes to the District of Columbia’s penal code, which could spark a politically charged veto fight with President Biden as the party works to capitalize on fears of increased crime. in the run-up to the 2024 campaign.

Senate Republicans hope to rally the votes next week to send Mr. Biden legislation that would block a recently enacted package of local laws that eliminated or reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes, including auto theft. The White House has voiced opposition, though officials have yet to issue a direct veto threat.

The changes in punishment came despite a wave of homicides, car thefts and property crimes in Washington that has many residents on edge and asking if now is the time to move away from strong deterrence. Congressional Republicans have seized the moment and are pushing Democrats to join them in the crackdown or be portrayed as lax enforcement, as part of an effort to make rising crime across the country a political problem.

Most Democrats oppose the attempt to get involved in district affairs, but dozens of conservative-leaning districts quietly accepted it in the House, reflecting concern that the reversal of the sentences was too drastic and recognition of the risks of being labeled soft on crime. Similar attempts to enact more progressive sentencing and bail laws have sparked a political backlash across the country, including in San Francisco, where a prosecutor was fired for alleged leniency toward criminals, and New York, where Mayor Eric Adams was fired. chosen with a heavy hand. – crime message.

The House passed the bill to reverse DC’s criminal code revisions this month with 31 Democrats in favor. With the support of all 49 Republicans in the Senate, his sponsors say they hope they can separate 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 an issue likely to take center stage in next year’s election.

“I can’t believe President Biden wants to encourage more crime here in the District of Columbia,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty, a first-term Republican from Tennessee who is the lead sponsor of what’s known as a disapproval resolution.

Most Democrats say it’s none of Congress’s business what locally elected officials in Washington do, even though the Constitution gives lawmakers final say on District laws.

“The United States Congress should not substitute its judgment for the elected representatives of the people of the District of Columbia,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from neighboring Maryland.

The dispute is the result of a district council decision, over a veto by Mayor Muriel Bowser and the objections of the local police union, to rewrite the penal code, reducing criminal penalties for a range of violent and anti-violence offences. property at a time when district residents have become increasingly uneasy about the incidence of such crimes.

Like other communities across the country, the District of Columbia has been plagued by a series of high-profile crimes, many of them committed by minors, as the pandemic has subsided. According to police, homicides have increased 40 percent so far in the past year, and car thefts have more than doubled. While auto thefts are down slightly so far this year, their frequency has increased significantly in the past three years, with reports flooding social media. Overall, police report that violent crime is down slightly, but Republicans have pushed nonetheless, arguing that the sentencing changes will increase crime.

The authors of the penal code reform said the changes were carefully weighed in consultation with experts and brought punishments more in line with sentences handed down in court. But that reasoning did not satisfy Republicans in the House and Senate, who said they were justified in intervening because of their concern for staff members and constituents.

“We work here, our staff live here, and our constituents come to visit the nation’s capital nearly every day the Capitol is open,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “And we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

For years, conservative Republicans have targeted progressive politics in the overwhelmingly Democratic and predominantly non-white District of Columbia, using budget bills to try to dictate policies on abortion rights, drug control and education, among others. Other themes.

During the House debate this month, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting delegate from Washington, criticized Republicans for trying to stop the District from setting its own policies.

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“In scheduling this vote, I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes that DC residents, the majority of whom are black and brown, are unworthy or incapable of governing themselves,” said Ms. Norton.

The District was granted autonomy in 1973, but Congress retained the power to revise its laws. Still, Congress hasn’t struck down any local laws through a “disapproval resolution” in more than 30 years, and that’s only happened three times in history.

But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on February 9 to block both a rewrite of the penal code and a second law that would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.

Penal code reform is receiving the most attention in Congress because of its potential political power and the possibility that it could attract bipartisan support in the Senate. Among the 31 Democrats who backed the resolution in the House was Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, who fended off an attacker in the elevator of her apartment building a mile from the Capitol just hours before the vote.

Another Democrat who voted to block the DC law was Rep. Mike Thompson, a 12-term legislator from Northern California, who noted that both the mayor and police officers supported some revisions to the code, but said the final product “it was a step too far.” .”

“I think we should be looking at ways to make the world safer for our constituents, not less safe,” Thompson said.

Most Democrats condemned the Republican-led effort, saying it clashed with Republican enthusiasm for states’ rights and control of local government.

Under the special rules for considering such disapproval resolutions, your sponsors can force a full vote after certain time requirements are met. Republicans only need a simple majority to pass it and send it to the president, rather than the 60 votes normally required in the Senate to bring legislation to a final vote. With all the Republicans on board, the sponsors only need two Democrats to join them, and they have their eyes on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, among others.

Both men are up for re-election next year in states Donald J. Trump won in 2020, and have so far refused to say how they might criticize the move. Republicans believe Democrats will weigh the possible consequences of opposing.

The Republicans have not been subtle about their goal. “Senate GOP Exposes Soft Democrats on Crime,” was the headline of a recent barrage from the Senate Republican Conference.

Before the House vote, the Biden administration spoke out against the resolution, instead endorsing statehood for the District of Columbia.

“For too long, the 700,000 residents of Washington, DC, have been deprived of full representation in the United States Congress,” the administration said in a policy statement that also opposed the resolution targeting the vote. of non-citizens.

Even if the resolution passed Congress, Democrats are confident their supporters would not have enough votes to override a veto Biden would have to exercise one. But Republicans relish the prospect of sending the president legislation he opposes.

“I think there’s a good chance we’ll have a number of Democratic senators want to join us because they see the same issues we do,” Hagerty said.

“I think,” he added, “that the White House will have to look at the politics of the matter and also think about its own security.”

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