The overwhelming majority of Democratic senators crossed the political aisle on Wednesday to vote with Republicans on an effort that was billed as a litmus test of whether President Joe Biden’s party is too soft on crime.
Eighty-one senators in the 100-member chamber voted in favour of striking down proposed changes to the criminal code in Washington, DC, that would reduce penalties for violent crimes such as carjackings and robberies in the nation’s capital. Fourteen Democratic senators voted against the Republican-led effort, while one, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, voted “present”.
The closely watched vote on Capitol Hill came just one week after Chicago voters ousted their Democratic mayor following an increase in violent crime, and amid fears among Democrats that the Republican party is breaking through with voters by claiming their opponents care more about criminals than law and order.
“Those attacks work; crime matters to people,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think-tank. “Republicans are very good at demagoguing on it . . . you have got to respond, and you have got to respond very directly and forcefully.”
At issue is an attempt by local councillors to overhaul the District of Columbia’s criminal code. Republicans in Congress, which has oversight of the changes, launched an effort to override the proposed new code, effectively daring Democrats to vote against them.
The Republican party had appeared to be boxing Democrats into a corner, prompting a frenetic few days of political manoeuvring that started with Biden saying he would not veto the bill; by Tuesday, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, declared that he would vote with Republicans in blocking the overhaul.
In capitulating to the Republican push, Democratic party leaders are risking the ire of progressives such as congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has said the president should “respect” the local authorities in DC and stay out of the issue.
But since Biden’s intervention, several Democratic senators said they intended to vote in favour of the resolution. Many of them are facing tough re-election battles in crucial swing states next year, including Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
Bennett said Democratic lawmakers had “gotten the message on crime”, particularly after Republicans successfully flipped four congressional seats in New York in last year’s midterm elections with campaigns focused on public safety.
More recently, Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s Democratic mayor, lost her bid for a second term as voters in the Midwestern city appeared to blame her for a rise in violent crime.
While national data on crime rates is often incomplete, Gallup polling conducted late last year showed that the share of Americans who thought crime was worsening in their local area was at an all-time high. More than three-quarters of respondents to the survey said they thought there was more crime in the US than there was a year earlier.
Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as “soft” on the issue, especially after calls by progressive activists to “defund” the police in big cities after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, as well as those seeking the party’s nomination for president in 2024, have sought to make cracking down on crime a central part of their pitch to voters.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, accused Democrats on Tuesday of “panicking and revers[ing] themselves”.
“There appears to be a different kind of jailbreak brewing here in the Senate, and a number of Democrats may jump ship at the eleventh hour, trying to act like they’ve been tough on crime all along,” McConnell said.
Republican lawmakers sought to scrap the changes to DC’s criminal code after they were first pushed through by the city’s progressive, Democrat-controlled local council. The council overrode a veto by Muriel Bowser, Washington’s Democratic mayor, who opposes the changes.
By giving Democrats political cover to vote with Republicans, Biden and Schumer not only run the risk of disappointing leftwing activists who still think that criminal justice needs to be reformed. They are also in effect undermining the party’s commitment to statehood for the District of Columbia, which would remove the ability of Congress to override local laws.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved the resolution to scrap the changes, with 31 Democrats siding with House Republicans. The measure passed the lower chamber of Congress on the same day that Angie Craig, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, was assaulted in the elevator of her apartment building, about a mile from the US Capitol.