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The Senate is on track to overturn a plan to overhaul D.C.'s criminal code

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Senate today is likely to take action on a bill that has created some unusual political alliances and also exposed Democrats' historic vulnerabilities with voters on crime. President Biden announced last week that he's going up against the local Democrats, siding with Republicans on Capitol Hill and opposing a planned overhaul of the criminal code in the nation's capital. NPR's Susan Davis takes us inside the debate.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The big question ahead of a Senate vote on a Republican bill to block a D.C. crime bill from taking effect is just how many Democrats will join them to pass it. Michigan Democratic Senator Gary Peters is running the party's 2024 Senate campaign operation. He knows how he will vote, but declined to tell NPR.

GARY PETERS: Yep, I have. We'll see you tomorrow.

DAVIS: If Democrats seem sensitive about this vote, it's partly because many were shocked by President Biden's announcement last week in a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats that he would not stand in Republicans' way.

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ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: This is news to me, and I'm very disappointed in it.

DAVIS: That was D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who generally opposes any effort by Congress to overturn the will of the D.C. City Council. But the Constitution and a 1970s law give Congress oversight over the nation's capital, and a newly revised criminal code has become a political issue that has exposed divisions within the broader Democratic Party. Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner will vote with Republicans. He noted hundreds of thousands of Virginians cross into the district daily, where crime rates are on the rise, and their safety is an issue for him.

MARK WARNER: If we were to somehow send a message that, all right, we're going to lower the penalty on carjacking, that doesn't pass the smell test.

DAVIS: Reduced maximum penalties for crimes like carjacking is one of the main objections cited by critics of the law and echoed by Biden. Another is a provision that would expand the right to trial by jury for certain misdemeanor offenses, which opponents say will overload an already-taxed D.C. court system. Other Democrats, like Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, support the D.C. crime bill and are frustrated that a few provisions are undermining a plan that would also stiffen penalties for things like gun crimes.

BEN CARDIN: I don't think it's out of the mainstream, but I don't think that's how the Republicans presented it. And I don't think we were effective in countering that 'cause we were looking at it from a process point of view.

DAVIS: Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee is the lead Republican on the legislation to block the D.C. bill. He summed up his party's view this way.

BILL HAGERTY: And what we've got is a D.C. City Council that has seemed to be completely bent on achieving some sort of woke messaging on criminal justice reform as opposed to worrying about the safety and security of people that come to visit and those who reside in the city.

DAVIS: The votes most closely watched are Senate Democrats running for reelection next year in competitive states. At least one of them, Montana's Jon Tester, told NPR he would vote with Republicans, saying from, quote, "a law enforcement standpoint, it's the right thing to do." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not conceal his intention to use this vote against Democrats in his effort to regain the majority.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: We cannot only have public safety in this country in exceptional cases when a Republican House and a narrowly divided Senate can force Democrats to do the right thing against their will.

DAVIS: Warner conceded that the politics around crime are difficult for Democrats and that it could have been a deciding factor against them in the 2022 elections.

WARNER: I think there might be a Democratic House if folks had handled the crime issue differently.

DAVIS: The challenge for Democrats going into 2024 is trying to find a unifying party position. Thirty-one House Democrats already voted with all Republicans to block the crime law before Biden even announced his position. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that he, too, will vote with Republicans.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.