The D.C. Council told Congress on Monday that it wanted to withdraw a criminal code rewrite that weakened penalties for carjacking and other crimes, an unprecedented attempt to save face after a growing list of Senate Democrats said they planned to support a Republican effort to rescind the city law.
Congressional leaders swiftly dismissed D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s attempt to withdraw the bill, saying there was no way to pull it back or stop a desire on Capitol Hill to rebuke city leaders.
The Senate is poised to vote on a disapproval resolution this week that would kill the local law, and the White House did not retreat from President Biden’s plan to sign the measure.
“We made ourselves very clear: If the bill comes to the president’s desk, he will sign it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
The messy episode is a reminder that Mr. Biden and other Democrats are politically sensitive to voters’ fears about crime in major cities and don’t want to be accused of defunding or weakening law enforcement — even at the expense of the District’s push for greater autonomy.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, recently lost her reelection bid in a campaign that pivoted on crime concerns, and several Senate Democrats lined up to thwart the D.C. measure on the floor this week.
The bill even split local Democrats.
Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill over concerns that it would weaken penalties for gun offenses and other crimes at a time when public safety concerns are rising in the capital. The council overrode the veto.
The House Republican majority exercised its constitutional power to block D.C. laws by passing a disapproval resolution with help from 30 House Democrats. Several Senate Democrats said they planned to support the resolution, prompting the scramble from city leaders.
Mr. Mendelson wrote a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as president of the Senate, explaining that the city wanted to fine-tune the bill and transmit a new version.
“It’s clear that Congress is intending to override that legislation,” Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, told reporters at a news conference. “In effect, we’re accomplishing what they want, which is that that bill cannot become law. But in the typical act of legislating, when one sees that they don’t have the votes, they pull a measure back.”
The Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, said the District’s move would not stop the roll call vote this week.
“This desperate, made-up maneuver not only has no basis in the D.C. Home Rule Act but underscores the completely unserious way the D.C. Council has legislated,” Mr. Hagerty said. “No matter how hard they try, the council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous D.C. soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe.”
Mr. Biden opposed the Republicans’ disapproval resolution in a statement of administration policy in early February, leading many House Democrats to vote against the resolution to block a local bill that reduces maximum penalties for carjacking and other crimes in the District.
With the Senate vote looming, Mr. Biden revealed that he would not veto the measure. That confused some House Democrats and angered local politicians who said it was a major setback for home rule in the nation’s capital.
Ms. Jean-Pierre said Monday that Mr. Biden still supports the District’s push for statehood despite his decision to slap down the local crime overhaul.
At his press conference, Mr. Mendelson said there is no precedent for a piece of D.C. legislation to be pulled back from Congress. He also acknowledged that the Home Rule Act is silent on whether the chairman has the authority to rescind a law under review.
Chuck Thies, a veteran political consultant for D.C. politicians, said there is no legal mechanism for withdrawing the bill from Congress and the chairman “knows that.”
“This is a Hail Mary, but the clock already expired,” Mr. Thies said.
Ms. Bowser said she agreed with the chairman’s sentiment that “it would be best for everybody” if the Senate didn’t vote, but she was unsure whether such a procedure was possible.
The mayor said she and Mr. Mendelson explored “every means possible” to avoid a Senate vote.
The office of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting member of Congress, said she did not expect the withdrawal to change the dynamics in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, breathed life into the Republican effort to rebuke the District by announcing last week that he planned to support the Hagerty resolution.
Other Democrats, including Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mark Kelly of Arizona, joined Mr. Manchin and easily gave the resolution the majority support it needs to pass the Senate and reach Mr. Biden.
“Senate Republicans want this to land on Biden’s desk, and Manchin plus other Dems aren’t going to take hits to stop it,” Mr. Thies said.
Mr. Mendelson said rhetoric about the criminal code rewrite caused “misunderstanding and misinformation,” notably the emphasis on lighter sentences.
The chairman said “stacks and stacks” of research suggest that harsher sentences do not deter crime.
Mr. Mendelson said that the new code wouldn’t take effect until October 2025, so the city’s current situation — including a homicide rate that is 31% higher so far this year — should not be used to knock the rewritten code.
Mr. Mendelson said the Capitol Hill debate amounted to mischief-making from Republicans, despite Mr. Biden’s stance.
“Our challenge here is that the messaging got out of our control, and that the messaging got picked up by Republicans who wanted to make a campaign out of it for next year against Democrats,” the D.C. Council chairman said. “If Republicans want to proceed with a vote, it will be a hollow vote because the bill isn’t there before them.”