Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told CNN Monday he will vote to rescind a controversial Washington, DC, crime law – which critics argue is soft on violent criminals – when it comes up for a vote in the Senate, likely next week.
Manchin becomes the first Democrat to publicly state support for the Republican legislation, which could be a politically fraught vote for Democrats, especially centrists like him who are up for reelection in red-leaning states.
Manchin’s decision signals the legislation has a good chance of passing in the narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats hold a 51-49 majority. It passed earlier this month in the Republican-controlled House with the backing of 31 Democrats.
“I don’t support it. I mean, I want to put people away, I don’t want to let them out,” Manchin said, addressing concerns that the DC law lowers sentencing requirements for some violent criminals. “I haven’t been briefed on it, but what I know about it, I would vote to rescind it.”
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, the chief sponsor of the legislation to repeal the local law – as Congress is allowed to do in the federal district – called it a “common sense” approach in a city where many violent crimes are up. Politically, he compared it to the “defund the police” issue and said for centrist Democrats, “I don’t think that’s going to be very popular in their states and this falls right in that lane.”
Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota said the issue hits a “political vulnerability” for many Democrats.
“It’s a raw nerve with a lot of the American people. They look at the cities today and they say they’re not safe places. I think it’s a problem for Democrats to oppose something that would make some of our larger population centers more safe,” Thune said. “My expectation is that some Democrats here in the Senate would vote for it. Then it would be up to Biden about what he wants to do.”
The DC Council had defended the measure and opposed congressional involvement in a letter last week, writing that “The District of Columbia has the right to self-govern as granted to us under the Home Rule Act.”
“Any changes or amendments to the District’s local laws should be done by the elected representatives of the District of Columbia. As those representatives, we alone are accountable to the voters of the District of Columbia,” the letter continued, adding: “Just as Congress does not interfere in the local matters of other states, we compel you not to interfere in our matters.”
President Joe Biden has said he opposes rescinding the DC crime measure but has not explicitly said if he will veto it.
Many Democrats oppose overriding the DC law. They argue local officials should make their own laws free of congressional interference and decry Republicans as hypocrites since they typically promote state and local rights. The law was passed after the city council overrode the veto of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Despite her opposition to the new law, she opposes Congress overturning it.
Complicating Democrats’ efforts to prevent the Republicans from passing their bill is the absence of Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, who is hospitalized for an unknown duration.
This story has been updated with additional details.