President Biden on Thursday said he would not veto legislation Republicans have championed that would undo parts of a District of Columbia crime bill, reflecting how the White House is trying to navigate the politically charged issue of crime.
And that decision has put Biden in a bind.
If he were to veto it, he would have faced a barrage of GOP attacks that he was soft on crime. But instead, the decision to sign the resolution unleashed a barrage of vitriol from his own party, with some House Democrats accusing him of betrayal after they opposed it to align with what they thought the White House wanted.
“And now we are being hung out to dry,” one House Democratic lawmaker told The Hill via text message.
The bill, which passed the GOP-controlled House with 31 Democrats backing it, is likely to pass the Senate with bipartisan support in a vote as early as next week, despite the Democratic majority in the upper chamber. The Democratic Party’s usual support for D.C. home rule drove opposition in the House.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not offer up many specifics within the D.C. bill that Biden opposed, but she said he was broadly concerned it would make District residents less safe.
“One thing that the President believes in is making sure that the streets in America and communities across the country are safe, that includes in D.C. That does not change,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.
“When it comes to what this proposal brings forth, which is really lowering penalties for car-jacking, he doesn’t believe that’s going to keep our communities safe,” she added.
Ultimately, the president expressed concern about the ramifications of leaving the crime bill in place. The decision is in line with how the White House has tried to present Biden: as a Democrat who is supportive of law enforcement and interested in lowering crime and community violence.
Jean-Pierre would not weigh in on any 2024 considerations that played into Biden’s decision. But the choice will be viewed through a political lens as the president prepares a reelection bid.
Republicans elevated crime throughout the 2022 midterms, accusing the White House and Democrats of being too lenient. And the White House has for years sought to bolster Biden’s image as a pro-law enforcement Democrat who is also supportive of reforms in police accountability.
Biden had told Senate Democrats about his intention to sign the bill when he went up to the Capitol on Thursday to meet with the caucus. He confirmed the decision in a tweet.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did – I’ll sign it.”
The bill would eliminate most mandatory sentences, lower penalties for a number of violent offenses, including carjackings and robberies, and expand the requirement for jury trials in most misdemeanor cases.
Some House Democrats were irate
The president’s decision received a chilly reception among House Democrats. While 31 Democratic lawmakers — many from moderate districts — voted to approve the bill, the majority opposed it, believing it was an infringement on local rule led by a Republican Party that typically champions less federal intervention.
Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s congressional delegate, said she was surprised and disappointed by Biden’s decision.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a member of House Democratic leadership, called the president’s move “disappointing for those of us who believe in home rule.”
“Democrats believe in strong public safety,” he said at a Punchbowl News event. “That’s what we’re demonstrating in our bills and demonstrated time and time again.”
Other Democrats took particular issue with what they viewed as an about-face from the White House. A Statement of Administration Policy issued Feb. 6 said the White House opposed the House resolution to overrule the D.C. crime law, though it did not explicitly state that Biden would veto the measure if it came to his desk.
When pressed Thursday afternoon on the statement of administration policy issued last month and whether Biden had a change of heart, Jean-Pierre said this particular bill was different because the D.C. council passed it over objections from the mayor, “and the president wants to make sure communities, even in D.C., feel safe.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday.
But is the decision ‘smart politics’?
But Biden could be looking ahead to 2024, although he hasn’t officially announced his plans to seek reelection. A veto would undoubtedly be used by the GOP in campaign ads and arguments for the rest of the cycle as Republicans push out the rhetoric that Democrats are too soft on crime.
“It’s smart politics. He was running into a buzzsaw,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday. “You don’t want to get left of the D.C. mayor.”
Biden could also be looking out for centrist Democrats who face tough reelection bids in 2024 and viewed deciding not to veto the GOP resolution as a way to give political cover to those lawmakers, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Manchin had opposed the D.C. law and told reporters Biden seemed to think it was a “bridge too far.”
Biden’s positions on crime
Biden and his aides have consistently tried to push back on the narrative that the president is soft on crime or aligned with the left-wing “defund the police” movement that grabbed headlines during nationwide protests in 2020.
As a candidate, Biden said he did not agree with calls to defund the police. In the White House, Biden has tried to bolster his pro-law enforcement bona fides while speaking out against examples of police violence and brutality.
In 2021, Biden signed bipartisan bills providing additional resources to law enforcement. His fiscal 2023 budget called for $37 billion in funding for police and crime prevention efforts. And Biden on the campaign trail in 2022 frequently chastised Republicans who claimed to be pro-police but downplayed the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or who criticized the FBI over its search of former President Trump’s estate looking for classified materials.
Still, Democrats were largely on defense on the issue of crime in last fall’s midterms, with some experts citing the issue as a key reason Republicans gained House seats in New York state and why that state’s gubernatorial race was closer than expected.
Biden walks tightrope on home rule
Jean-Pierre, when asked why Biden opposed D.C. home rule in this particular instance, repeatedly pointed to the District council overruling the mayor’s objections to the bill.
“The Revised Criminal Code Act is supported by a supermajority (83%) of District registered voters,” Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic strategist, tweeted in response to Biden’s announcement. “A majority white Senate is trying overturn the will of a majority-minority city.”
Karl Racine, the District’s attorney general from 2015 through 2022, said Biden’s decision “degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern.”
The White House on Thursday argued that Biden was still supportive of granting Washington, D.C., statehood, but on this particular issue, he was concerned about the ramifications of leaving the crime bill in place.
“Both things can exist at the same time,” Jean-Pierre said when asked if Biden is putting safer communities ahead of his belief in D.C. statehood.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill, citing concerns that the legislation would reduce penalties for crime and overburden the court system. The White House wouldn’t say if Biden talked to Bowser ahead of saying he would not veto the legislation.
And, Jean-Pierre on Thursday added that the situation is unique “because the D.C. council took these changes forward over the mayor’s objections.”
Al Weaver and Mychael Schnell contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:16 p.m.