In a Reversal, Biden Says He’ll Sign Republican DC Crime Bill

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden said he’d sign Republican legislation barring the government in Washington, DC, from making changes to its own criminal code, reversing his earlier position in a move that will surely anger statehood advocates and others in the heavily Democratic city.

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At least three Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — are joining with all Senate Republicans in backing the resolution, giving it enough support to clear in a Senate vote that could come as early as next week.

“He said that very clearly and, we heard it very loud and clear,” Manchin said of Biden’s announcement Thursday during a closed-door meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill that he won’t attempt to block the measure. “And I clapped very loudly because I feel the same.”

Washington’s crime bill reduces penalties for a variety of offenses, including carjackings, at a time when crime in the city is soaring. But the GOP effort poses a test for Biden and congressional Democrats, who are wary of interfering in the Democrat-dominated city’s affairs.

And moderate Democrats running for reelection are in the tough spot of either scrapping a controversial law reducing many sentences before their 2024 campaigns or standing up for the District’s ability to govern itself.

“If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it,” Biden tweeted after the meeting.

The White House last month opposed the Republican bill, saying that Congress “should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to explain the president’s change of heart, and what criteria he would use to evaluate congressional efforts to overturn DC laws in the future. She declined to say what Biden considered a reasonable mandatory minimum for carjacking offenses was, broadly arguing the president was making a one-time decision based on what he saw as the best interests of Washingtonians.

“The decision he’s making, he’s making for the people of D.C.,” Jean-Pierre said.

The change of course unfolds as the national discourse around crime continues to intensify. A potential harbinger for Biden and Democrats occurred this week as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot became the city’s first mayor to lose reelection since 1983. The city’s crime rate factored heavily into the contest, portending that the issue could remain salient heading into 2024 races.

The GOP-led House already has approved the measure rescinding the city’s criminal code changes. In the Senate, where Democrats have a one-vote majority, the resolution needs only 51 votes to clear, so Biden’s decision means the sentencing code changes won’t go forward.

The District of Columbia law eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences and reduces the maximum penalties for robberies, carjackings and burglaries, among other offenses.

Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the crime bill, and the city council overrode her on a 12-1 vote in January. Nonetheless, the mayor has resisted Congress weighing in on the local matter. Washington is a federal district and does not have voting congressional representation.

“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 a Feb. 23 letter to Senate leaders.

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters at a meeting of House Democrats in Baltimore that she’s “very disappointed” he won’t veto the measure.

“Two things could exist at the same time,” Jean-Pierre said when asked how the president could overturn changes to D.C.’s criminal code if he believes in statehood and home rule.

“The president still thinks that DC should become the 51st state,” Jean-Pierre said, adding, “he feels as president, he has the obligation as well to keep America’s cities safe, to keep communities safe, and this is way to do that.”

Asked if the president was establishing a new principle by which he would make exceptions to his belief in home rule for policies he does not like, Jean-Pierre said, “I don’t think it’s every piece of legislation. This is going to come to his desk, and he has a decision to make for the people of DC”

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said that while he disagrees with the city’s actions, Congress shouldn’t substitute its judgment for that of local officials.

“I respect the process and the right of the people of the District of Columbia for self determination,” Van Hollen said.

But Heinrich said it’s important to step in at this time with crime rates so high.

“This is about getting it right,” he said. “We all realize there is a very serious crime issue.”

--With assistance from Erik Wasson, Tatyana Monnay, Steven T. Dennis, Zach C. Cohen, Jarrell Dillard and Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with Jean-Pierre comments, starting in eighth paragraph.)

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