Republican Sen. J.D. Vance (Ohio) introduced a resolution to block D.C.'s major police accountability legislation Thursday and expects to bring it to a vote next week - even though the congressional review period for the D.C. legislation has expired.
The highly unusual maneuver lines up a potential Senate vote that may have much more political than practical impact. While the GOP-controlled House voted to block D.C.'s policing legislation last month, President Biden has already said he would veto the measure if it reaches his desk. Yet Senate Republicans, potentially eager to make a statement during National Police Week, still intend to try to force Democrats to take a vote on blocking the D.C. legislation, which Republicans have branded "anti-police" and could use as a cudgel in campaign season.
"It's a disgrace that the capital of the most powerful nation on earth has become so dangerous, but this sad reality is exactly what we should expect when far-left activists are calling the shots," Vance said in a statement. "For the good of every American who lives in or visits this town, I urge my colleagues to support my disapproval motion."
Still, in a hypothetical world where Biden did sign the resolution despite already signaling opposition, which has happened before, some D.C. officials disagree that the disapproval resolution would carry any legal weight.
‘Grandstanding and superfluous’
Both D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that because the review period has expired, they believed the policing bill had become law and did not see how that would be negotiable. Schwalb called the vote "empty political grandstanding" while Mendelson said forcing a vote would be "superfluous."
"Nonetheless, I hope they would not choose to do this because once again it's using the District as a football for the national political agenda," he said in a statement to The Washington Post.
A spokesman for Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn't immediately respond to questions about whether Schumer would urge Democrats to oppose the disapproval resolution or challenge the vote. He has previously said he believed the D.C. policing legislation contained "reasonable reforms" and anticipated Senate Democrats would be able to halt the Republican effort. A floor schedule released by Senate Democratic leadership Thursday evening said the disapproval resolution may go up for a vote Tuesday, with the possibility of it getting carried over into Wednesday.
The political ramifications of D.C. seeing Congress vote to block a second consecutive criminal justice bill - Biden veto or not - could serve as a significant rebuke against the deep-blue city's policies as city leaders continue to press for statehood. D.C. disapproval resolutions rarely make it to the House or Senate floor - yet this year three have passed in the House and one of those, rejecting D.C.'s revised criminal code, passed both chambers and was signed by Biden, after the Biden administration initially indicated he opposed the move to reject the code. Only a couple Senate Democrats would need to side with Republicans for the policing disapproval resolution to succeed in the narrowly divided Senate.
Altogether, the flurry of efforts to intervene in D.C. affairs has created a prickly environment for the city in Congress, which has authority over District laws under a provision in the Constitution. Next week, House Republicans on the Oversight Committee also intend to probe D.C. policies in their second hearing digging into public safety and city management, showing the sustained pressure that Republicans have placed on the District as the city seeks to quell violent crime, including rising homicides and carjackings. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and city leaders are expected to appear for questions alongside U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Matthew Graves, who confirmed his appearance after the Justice Department initially declined the invitation, the committee said.
District leaders and the majority of House Democrats have said the city's Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Act is essential to police accountability and transparency. Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to draw unproved connections between the legislation and crime. Still, city leaders and outgoing Police Chief Robert J. Contee III have acknowledged they are experiencing serious problems with retaining and recruiting police - a nationwide challenge - and Republicans argue the legislation exacerbates the situation.
The Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Act - many provisions of which have already been in effect on a temporary basis - expands public access to police disciplinary records and to body-camera footage in cases of excessive force; restricts police tactics including neck restraints and certain vehicular pursuit tactics; requires Miranda-like warnings before conducting searches with consent; bars the police union from negotiating police discipline and prevents the hiring of officers who have committed past misconduct, among other things.
The D.C. Police Union - the legislation's biggest foe - released a digital ad calling on the Senate to vote to block the bill, and describing the legislation on Twitter as "pro-criminal."
Yet trying to block a D.C. bill through a disapproval resolution after the congressional review period has already expired appears to be an unprecedented situation. Typically, a bill that deals with D.C. criminal code goes to Congress for a review period of 60 days - a period that expired this week.
Republicans sought guidance from the Senate parliamentarian, who, according to congressional and D.C. government staffers, offered guidance giving Republicans clearance to move forward. (The parliamentarian could not be immediately reached for comment, but the office does not typically speak to the media.) Under the D.C. Home Rule Act, disapproval resolutions targeting D.C. criminal bills - which include the policing legislation - can be called to the floor for a vote by any senator under what's known as "expedited procedure," a special privilege. The vote is also not subject to the Senate filibuster and can pass with a simple majority.
The parliamentarian, according to the staffers, offered guidance based on a 1987 precedent involving a disapproval resolution unconnected to D.C. legislation. The parliamentarian found that the expedited privilege does not expire and can be used to force a vote even after the congressional review period ends.
"We are confident that Congress has the authority to overturn this highly problematic law," a spokesman for Vance said.
The guidance surprised longtime D.C. home rule experts and local officials, who until now did not see this as a possibility because it has not happened before with D.C.-specific legislation.
Michael Thorning, director of structural democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center who specializes in congressional procedure, said the parliamentarian's decisions aren't binding, though often senators defer to them. The parliamentarian's job is only to offer advice based on what the Senate has previously done, he said. In cases where precedent seems to conflict with the law - which he said could be the case with the D.C. Home Rule Act's 60-day deadline - senators can debate whether the vote should proceed.
"I think there are valid questions about the legal effect and whether or not this would hold up if challenged in court, given the fact the Senate would have acted outside the Home Rule Act's pretty clear timeline," Thorning said - noting, of course, that this question would only arise if the disapproval resolution becomes law. Considering Biden's veto threat, it may be a moot point.
Whether any U.S. senators are passionate enough to engage with D.C. Home Rule minutia on the Senate floor is a different question. D.C. has no senators.
D.C. statehood advocates argued Vance's resolution held "no weight" after the 60-day window expired and called it undemocratic. "It is nothing more than an opportunity to play political games," D.C. Vote's Patrice Snow said in a statement.
Vance's disapproval resolution is a companion to one led by Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), which passed the House last month. Fourteen Democrats joined Republicans in voting to block the policing bill last month, about half as many as the 31 who voted to reject the revised criminal code in March.