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WASHINGTON — The White House is responding to relentless Republican charges that it wants to "defund the police" by embracing the message that there are, in fact, politicians angling to starve law enforcement of needed money: congressional Republicans.
The White House launched the counteroffensive as advisers push to shore up President Joe Biden's low approval on crime and fight an attack that could damage Democrats in the midterm elections next year.
Congressional Democrats are amplifying the push, highlighting their support for bills that would boost money for policing. They cite Republican opposition to the measures, along with the party's lack of interest in investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which left a police officer dead and many more injured, to claim that Republicans aren't the party of law enforcement.
"I think it's important that people are educated on this issue. And I think it is significant that Republicans have chosen not to support, with their dollars and their votes, the police as well as our armed services," said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who was part of the class of 2018 that flipped control of the House to Democrats.
The White House touts the $350 billion in state and local funding under Biden's Covid-19 aid law for helping keep police employed. His budget requests $651 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services program — or COPS — a major increase from last year. Biden has also sought to sell his gun control proposals as an attempt to combat violent crime and mass murders.
"The president, with the backing of leading law enforcement groups, secured the money that his predecessor opposed — to keep cops on the beat — and every single Republican member of Congress voted against it," White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. "The GOP continues to oppose the American Rescue Plan even as it delivers the rehiring of police in their districts."
Republicans are seizing on rising concerns about crime to try to recapture control of Congress next year. Biden is vulnerable on the issue — a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 38 percent approve of his handling of crime, while 48 percent disapprove and 14 percent have no opinion.
A USA Today/Ipsos poll released in March found that just 18 percent of Americans supported the "defund the police" movement.
In an op-ed Monday for Fox News, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, slammed the White House's argument as "gaslighting," calling it a "desperate ploy to escape blame for rising crime rates."
For the past year, GOP officials and conservative allies have sought to tie Democrats to a left-wing movement to "defund the police," in which activists have called for spending less money on policing and more on education and mental health programs. While a handful of House progressives have expressed support for the cause, it has been rejected by Biden and congressional leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has cited cuts in police funding in liberal cities like Seattle and Minneapolis to argue that defunding law enforcement is Democratic dogma.
"Elected Democrats instead rapidly embraced radical calls to 'defund the police.' To the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, they succeeded in gutting local law enforcement budgets and validating the worst instincts of anti-police agitators," McConnell said in a recent speech.
The attacks from both parties don't necessarily reflect the full reality. National Democratic lawmakers and candidates overwhelmingly oppose defunding police and have supported increasing money for law enforcement. And Republicans cite many factors — none of them particular to police funding — to justify their opposition to the $1.9 trillion stimulus law.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly defended the Democratic argument.
"If you oppose funding for the COPS program — something that was dramatically cut by the prior administration and many Republicans supported — and then you vote against a bill that has funding for the COPS program, we can let other people evaluate what that means," Psaki said when pressed by a reporter at a news briefing June 30.
A Democratic strategist acknowledged that it could be seen as a stretch to argue that opposition to the Covid-19 relief bill was tantamount to opposing police funding in general. But the strategist said it was fair game after Republicans sought to paint Biden as supporting the "defund the police" movement, which he openly opposed.
"If Republicans want to use an intellectually dishonest argument about defunding the police, it is fair game for Democrats to have a somewhat intellectually dishonest argument, to boot," the strategist said. "If Republicans are going to try to pursue that BS line of argument, we will put it right back in their face."
The strategist said internal opinion research suggests that the messaging is effective.
"I've seen opinion research where it really pops," the strategist said.
A Biden campaign alumnus who is close to the White House said that Biden tried to make a similar argument during the campaign but that the rest of the party wasn't echoing the message — until now. "Expect Democrats to go on offense," this person said.
Some of them have begun to do that.
"No matter how much D.C. Republicans lie and mislead, it won't change the fact House Democrats delivered $350 billion to help support police departments with the American Rescue Plan while every single Republican opposed this critical funding," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the party's House campaign committee.
The party, he said, "will make sure voters know Democrats are the ones actually investing in public safety and fighting for critical reforms in policing and racial justice."