WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden isn’t expected to veto Republican-sponsored resolutions that would block new District of Columbia laws that change how the nation’s capital votes and how the city prosecutes and punishes crime, according to people familiar with the matter.
City officials have spent nearly two decades trying to redo Washington’s criminal laws, including redefining crimes, changing criminal justice policies and reworking how sentences should be handed down after convictions. Voting law revisions would make it easier for noncitizens to vote in local races.
The Republican-controlled House decided to wade into city matters, claiming the district’s changes will contribute to already-rising crime in Washington — the number of murders in 2021 was the highest in nearly 20 years — and make it easier for some criminals to get out of prison or evade punishment all together.
The resolutions passed the House with some Democratic support and appear poised to clear Senate on a bipartisan basis as well, perhaps as early as next week.
By not vetoing the measures, Biden would allow Congress to nullify the city’s laws for the first time in more than three decades. It was not clear whether Biden would sign the resolutions or let them take effect without his veto or signature.
Biden has promised to veto other bills pushed by Republicans, but isn’t expected to do that for the district resolutions, particularly if enough Democrats sign on and send it to him, according to four people familiar with the matter who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the White House’s thinking before final congressional action.
The GOP effort is part of a growing political backlash against Democratic-led criminal justice changes that picked up pace after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid this week for reelection as some of her Democratic challengers argued that the nation’s third-largest city needed tough-on-crime policies.
On Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell cited crimes in his home state of Kentucky as he tried to blame Democrats for rising crime, including an incident two days ago when masked thieves stormed an auto showroom and drove off with a half dozen cars.
“Getting murderers off our streets and foreign poison out of our neighborhoods are among the most basic governing responsibilities you can possibly think of,” McConnell added, a reference to the country’s fentanyl crisis. “Evidently the Biden administration does not agree or just cannot deliver.”
Washington’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901. Criminal justice experts have said it is outdated, confusing and not in touch with how crimes are punished today. In the city, like most places in the United States, Black people are disproportionately affected by the criminal laws.
The revisions passed the D.C. Council late last year would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and expand jury trials for lower-level charges. The changes also would reduce the maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.
The district is not a state, and because of that, it lacks the same rights that the 50 states have to make and amend laws. Also, district residents do not have voting members in Congress. While Congress has allowed the city’s residents some powers of “home rule,” it has retained veto powers over district government actions.
Earlier this month, House Republicans voted 250-173 to overturn the rewrite of the criminal code. The voting rights measure also was overturned, by a 260-173 vote.
The local legislation, which would take effect in 2025, created some friction within district government. In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, writing in a letter that she had “very significant concerns” about some of the bill’s proposals. She later proposed changes after the council overrrode her veto.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the district, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that the council’s bill would “lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.”
But the issue is broader than simply about crime: D.C. officials say it’s a local matter and the federal government should keep out.
“The insult of limited home rule is that the 700,000 D.C. residents and taxpaying Americans, and their duly elected officials, must endure the review and oversight of our laws by officials not elected to represent our interests or values,” Bowser wrote in a letter to Congress.
While it has been more than three decades since Congress outright nullified a D.C. law, Congress has frequently used alternative methods to alter laws on issues from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.
AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller and Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.