The U.S. Senate is due to vote on Wednesday to overturn recent changes to Washington’s laws that lowered penalties for some crimes, as Democrats’ support for self-governance in the capital city takes a back seat to public-safety concerns.
If it passes, as expected, it would mark only the fourth time that Congress has overturned a law passed by the District of Columbia, whose 700,000 residents do not have representation on Capitol Hill.
The measure has already passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and Democratic President Joe Biden said last week that he would not veto it.
Biden and many of his fellow Democrats say the District of Columbia should be a state that sets its own laws, free from interference from Congress, but they have also battled accusations that they do not take crime seriously.
Opinion polls show the U.S. public is broadly opposed to “defunding the police” and other criminal-justice reforms that gained prominence after several prominent police killings of Black Americans in 2020.
Washington’s city council lowered penalties for burglary, carjacking and some other crimes as part of a broad overhaul of its criminal code, prompting criticism from the police chief and prosecutors and a veto from Mayor Muriel Bowser, which the city council overrode.
A spike in carjackings and an assault on Democratic Representative Angie Craig has stirred concerns about crime in the city in recent years.
Police statistics show that homicides and gun crimes in Washington have nearly doubled since 2017, though crime has fallen overall.
City council members say their law is the result of years of compromise and say the reduced penalties for crimes like carjacking and robbery reflect the actual sentences imposed by judges.
But that argument has gotten little traction on Capitol Hill, where Republicans who represent rural areas have often clashed with leadership of the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Washington’s city council, sensing defeat, withdrew its crime overhaul on Monday in an unsuccessful attempt to head of the Senate vote.
Though Congress rarely overturns D.C. laws, it routinely inserts provisions into spending bills to exert control over local affairs. Lawmakers have banned needle exchanges and public funding for abortions and prevented the District from setting up laws to regulate the sale of marijuana, which residents legalized for recreational use in 2015.