Senate Democrats are in a tough spot politically as they attempt to show the party is not soft on crime after a vote to nix updates to the District of Columbia’s criminal code thrust the hot-button issue back into the spotlight.
Despite the sizable Democratic support for the resolution to block a crime bill passed by the D.C. City Council, the GOP is almost certain to use the subject to bludgeon the party in power — especially in cities and suburban areas where they think gains are possible.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said as much in a speech from the Senate floor Wednesday, warning Democrats that the issue will continue to haunt the opposing party.
“The Democrats’ flip-flop is good news for the residents of D.C. and the 300-plus-million Americans who deserve to be able to visit their nation’s capital in peace. But Democrats are not getting off the hook this easy,” McConnell said. “They are not going to be able to duck the heat for the violent crime surge to which their policies, their rhetoric, and their political movement have directly contributed.”
Thirty-three Senate Democrats voted on Wednesday with every Republican present to pass the resolution blocking D.C.’s crime bill. Fourteen senators who caucus with Democrats voted against the resolution, while Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) voted present. Four members missed the vote, including three Democrats.
The lopsided vote came after President Biden last week said he would not veto the measure if it reached his desk — reversing his earlier position backing D.C.
Democrats are still conscious of the dilemma they face, especially in the early stages of the 2024 cycle where all things are usually political.
“It’s not a made-up issue. Our critics will raise that point every time,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate, told reporters. “I think that, in fairness, we want criminal sentencing that’s tough, it’s smart and just throwing the book at somebody isn’t always the right issue.”
Durbin voted against the resolution, breaking with other members of Senate leadership including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
For weeks, Republicans have been on offense over the District’s bill, calling out provisions that lessen penalties for some types of violent crime, including robberies and carjackings that have become fixtures on the nightly news in the nation’s capital.
That chatter grew to a crescendo over the past week as Biden, perhaps sensing that more Democrats than just some moderates were considering support for the resolution, threw his weight behind it.
By the time Wednesday’s vote rolled around, the number of Democrats vowing the vote “yes” on the resolution was in the double digits.
However, the GOP pressure intensified.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) on Wednesday rolled out an ad campaign targeting 15 House Democrats who voted against nixing the crime bill.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the NRCC’s chairman, said in a statement that the ads are “just a preview” of what’s to come this cycle. Overall, 173 Democrats voted against the resolution last month.
“The public had about as much as they can take of these ‘woke’ policies that are detached from reality,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), the leading co-sponsor of the measure, told The Hill. “Frankly, the reality of it is: when these policies are implemented, it makes the cities less safe. [D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser] said that herself.”
According to the Metropolitan Police Department, the District has experienced 101 carjackings during 2023 alone, roughly the same as the 106 reported by this point last year, with 22 of this year’s cases having been closed. Fourteen people have been arrested.
Biden, in announcing his support for the resolution, specifically cited the issue of carjacking.
Homicides in Washington, D.C., are up 33 percent from the same time last year.
Every vulnerable Senate Democrat — headlined by Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) — sided with the GOP on the bill, joining 31 House Democrats who broke with their party last month.
But the national drumbeat from Republicans isn’t going away anytime soon, especially after the defeat of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) in her reelection bid last week. Democrat Paul Vallas finished first with nearly double the support of Lightfoot after running a campaign centered on a “tough on crime” message.
“It’s an important issue. It’s on people’s minds. We’ve got to respond to it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that the party needs to “stand up for safe communities,” noting that Republicans voted against funding police when Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan in early 2021.
However, some top Democrats believe the D.C. City Council’s bill has been used as a trojan horse by the GOP to push a number of Democratic senators to block a measure for unnecessary reasons.
According to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), not only should the District be able to govern itself, but the bill in question isn’t nearly as soft as it has been made out to be — an argument that Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) made during the Senate Democratic caucus lunch on Tuesday.
“I think that’s the sad thing here. If you take a look at the bill and analyze it, it has a lot of good issues from the point of view of public safety,” Cardin said.
“It’s sad that we fell into this trap,” Cardin continued. “Because I think we did fall into a trap.”
However, Republicans are unbowed in their criticism of Democratic handling of crime across the country and are promising that it will be a centerpiece of their messaging in the coming months, if not longer.
“I think this is one of the defining issues of the 2024 cycle,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).