The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bowser lobbies Senate amid worries about losing Democrats on D.C. home rule votes

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) (Alex Brandon/AP)
10 min

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has petitioned Senate leaders to oppose a congressional effort to overturn a pair of D.C. bills as the city braces for Congress to potentially vote to undo local legislation for the first time in a generation.

A letter from Bowser dated Thursday, comes after dozens of House Democrats joined Republicans to block two D.C. bills this month, one that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, and one that would overhaul the city’s outdated criminal code, changing how crimes are defined and sentenced. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress oversight of D.C.’s laws and budget as part of the city’s unique status as a federal district.

But while Republican efforts to overturn the bills were unsurprising, the bipartisan nature of the House votes was a notable departure among Democrats, who in recent years have been more vocal in their support for D.C. home rule and nearly united in backing the D.C. statehood campaign. City leaders and statehood activists have long advocated that regardless of Congress’s opinion of D.C. legislation, federal lawmakers should respect the principle of D.C. home rule and stay out of local government. Dozens of Democrats, however, appeared to brush that principle aside because of the politically sensitive nature of the two D.C. bills Congress was weighing, as D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) observed.

Now, should the city lose more Democrats in the Senate, Congress could successfully vote to block D.C. legislation for the first time in more than 30 years — potentially signaling significant setbacks in the city’s quest for autonomy.

Bowser (D), who had unsuccessfully vetoed the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, said in her letter Thursday that the D.C. Council would address her concerns about the bill at the local level. Republicans had repeatedly invoked her veto in seeking to drum up bipartisan support for a resolution to block the bill.

“The insult of limited Home Rule is that the 700,000 DC 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 the letter to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “I call on all senators who share a commitment to the basic democratic principles of self-determination and local control to vote ‘NO’ on any disapproval resolutions involving duly elected laws of the District of Columbia.”

The Senate is preparing to vote on the disapproval resolutions as soon as next month. In the House, 42 Democrats joined Republicans on Feb. 9 to block the bill allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. And 31 Democrats supported the resolution to overturn the criminal code revision, as Republicans painted provisions in the legislation that would reduce maximum penalties for certain violent offenses as softness on crime.

House votes to block D.C. bills on noncitizen voting, criminal code

D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) said Friday that he had serious concerns about the fate of the disapproval resolutions in the Senate, believing the outcome could have lasting consequences for the city.

“The House vote really hurt,” he said. “The question is whether we’ll be able to recover sufficiently in the Senate.” The latest, unified response from city leaders, he added, could only help. “A lot of damage was done by the [city’s] murky messaging before the House,” he said.

Asked Friday whether concerns about wavering Democratic support in Congress motivated the mayor’s letter, Bowser’s spokeswoman, Susana Castillo, said in a statement that “we have been in regular contact with Senate allies who asked us to circulate a letter, so we did.”

Bowser’s veto of the Revised Criminal Code Act, which updates the D.C. criminal code for the first time in a century and is intended to bring sentencing guidelines more into line with those of many states, left her in a delicate position. In news conferences, she decried congressional involvement in D.C. affairs in general, but she did not join the council or D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb (D) in directly writing to House leadership to oppose the disapproval resolutions ahead of that vote.

And there appeared to be no coordinated efforts among Bowser, the council and Norton to mount a unified campaign to oppose the resolutions, a move that some congressional observers felt could have made a difference.

The city’s uneven efforts led a number of local advocates, including the D.C. Latino Caucus, to demand a more visible and unified response from Bowser and city officials. “We have seen local leaders who have advocated for statehood stand silent because they personally disagree with the details of these laws,” the caucus said in a statement, declaring that city leaders needed to take a stand “in no uncertain terms.”

To some advocates, Bowser’s letter Thursday appeared to be a step in that direction; one day earlier, Bowser responded to a scathing column from the Wall Street Journal editorial board saying that certain “crazy progressive ideas” from the council make an argument against D.C. statehood.

“If the sanity of a jurisdiction’s local laws were the measure of whether statehood should be granted I’m not sure we’d have any states at all,” Bowser wrote. “A quick interest search unearths hundreds of local laws that might seem crazy to you or me. But, frankly, it’s none of my business or yours.”

Schwalb and the entire council also petitioned Senate leaders Thursday to oppose the two disapproval resolutions, a show of unity that Josh Burch, a founder of Neighbors United for D.C. Statehood, said he found encouraging.

“My hope is that Democrats, or a Republican or two, say this is not our role; we should not be overturning legislation for the people of D.C.,” he said. “I hope we don’t lose any Democratic votes, but I think the united front among District leadership would hopefully cause us to lose fewer votes than we would have over a week ago.”

Echoing Bowser’s concerns about the overhaul of the criminal code, congressional Republicans have taken aim at provisions that would reduce maximum penalties for certain violent crimes such as robbery and carjacking at a time when D.C. is grappling with rates of violent crime that are higher than pre-pandemic levels. Republicans also have decried the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for almost all offenses. The revised criminal code also would create other ways for prosecutors to file penalty enhancements or stack additional charges to increase penalties. But the political debate does not typically include discussion of those other new tools, to the irritation of council members including Mendelson.

Responding to Bowser’s letter, Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who sponsored the disapproval resolution targeting the criminal code, focused on what he viewed as the negative consequences of reducing statutory maximums for some crimes, saying Bowser was right to veto the bill.

“This isn’t about statehood — it’s about safety,” Hagerty said in a statement to The Washington Post. “In the midst of a rising crime wave in the District of Columbia, their aim to reduce penalties for felonies is beyond reason. My concern is ensuring that our nation’s capital is safe for my constituents and thousands of Americans from around the country who visit their government each week. This is one of the most basic responsibilities given to Congress by the U.S. Constitution.”

Norton said Republican tough-on-crime arguments appeared to be persuasive for Democrats concerned about being targeted on the issue in their next reelection campaigns — even though the bill did include some tools to increase penalties. “I was concerned, because Democrats usually would stick with D.C.,” she said of losing so many Democratic allies on the votes. But, she said, “people aren’t going to vote for anything they think makes them look bad back at home.”

D.C. braces for barrage of Republican intervention in local governance

She added that she thought Democrats’ votes on the disapproval resolutions were not a setback for D.C. statehood, noting that the issue in recent years has become a positive voting rights issue for Democrats.

In the Senate, D.C.’s allies in the region are avoiding debating the merits of the legislation and are encouraging colleagues to simply stick with the principle that Congress should not be intervening in a local government’s affairs.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he had yet to dig into the bills, butI do think just the topics of them are ones that have led some of the Democrats to be wary. But I’m not only a D.C. ally, I’m a former local elected official,” said Kaine, who was mayor of Richmond. “And I strongly believe that when the citizens of a community elect their own local government, then the local government should do what they think is right for the community. And if they get it wrong, well, then the citizens are going to put somebody else in office.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement that “no state has to navigate the unnecessary legislative hurdles that Washington, D.C., presently finds itself facing. I strongly support home rule for the District of Columbia and will vote against the resolutions of disapproval slinking their way over from the House of Representatives.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) similarly said Congress shouldn’t be “bigfooting decisions made by the elected representatives of the District. Period.” And while Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said he hadn’t yet reviewed the disapproval resolutions, he said in a statement that circumstances would need to be “exceptional” to warrant congressional intervention.

Schwalb said that continued threats of congressional intervention underscore the significance of fighting for local autonomy, so that the city “doesn’t end up being a prop in a drama on the national stage.” His approach to lobbying Congress: education about what the revised code actually does.

“When folks are voting against D.C. laws, oftentimes they’re thinking about their local elections back in whatever state they’re being elected in, as opposed to the best interest of the people in D.C.,” he said. “I’ve expressed to Congress and the Senate that the narrative that the revised criminal code bill is soft on crime is false, and I’m encouraging the Senate to separate the false narrative from the facts.”

The disapproval resolutions will not be subject to the Senate filibuster; the resolution targeting the criminal code is subject to different rules in the Senate from the civil noncitizens voting bill, allowing senators to fast-track it for a vote.

Should either disapproval resolution pass Congress, it will head to President Biden’s desk. Norton said that at this point, she’s counting on Biden to step in to veto the resolutions if necessary. The Biden administration has said it opposes both disapproval resolutions but has not responded to inquiries seeking clarification on whether Biden would veto them.


A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the number of Democrats who joined Republicans in voting for the two disapproval resolutions in the House. Forty-two Democrats voted to block the bill allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, and 31 Democrats voted to overturn the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022. The article has been corrected.