The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden says he would sign GOP-led resolution blocking D.C. crime bill

President Biden walks with Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Julia Nikhinson for The Washington Post)
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President Biden said Thursday that he will sign a GOP-led resolution to block D.C.’s major revision of criminal sentencing laws in the nation’s capital should that measure pass Congress, a remarkable moment for a city that has gone full throttle on pushing Democrats to unite behind D.C. statehood in recent years.

Biden’s decision is likely to influence more Democratic senators to join Republicans in rebuking the city, which could result in Congress successfully voting to block a D.C. bill for the first time in more than 30 years. Now, the very same Democrats whom D.C. has turned to as allies in the statehood cause are weighing intervening in the city’s affairs — something the city typically decries among Republicans in Congress but now must contend with on the greatest bipartisan scale in recent memory.

Biden sought to separate his support for D.C. statehood from his support for overturning the D.C. criminal code revisions, but that came as little consolation for local statehood advocates and city officials.

“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 said in a statement posted to Twitter, hours after telling Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting that he would not veto the resolution. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

The news appeared to catch top city officials off guard, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) remaining silent for several hours after the news broke as they scrambled to craft responses.

The president’s announcement comes after more than two dozen House Democrats voted last month to block the D.C. crime bill, signaling a significant change among party lawmakers in their posture toward D.C. home rule while also showing Democrats’ political vulnerabilities on the issue of crime.

D.C. has long been caught up in national political clashes, with Congress imposing restrictions on how D.C. spends its local funds to subsidize abortion or create a legal recreational marijuana market. But despite recent progress toward D.C. statehood, Democrats including President Barack Obama have historically been reticent to go out on a limb to fight for D.C. home rule if the political stakes get dicey — as appears to be the case now.

How Congress can thwart bills passed by D.C.'s government

The Senate is preparing to vote as soon as next week on the resolution disapproving of D.C.’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022, which drastically changes how criminal acts are defined and sentenced in D.C. The resolution has been politically fraught for Democrats, who have been hammered by Republicans in recent elections with accusations that they are soft on crime.

Republicans have taken aim at provisions in the bill that reduce maximum penalties for certain crimes — something that also concerned Bowser, who vetoed the bill before the council overrode her. The sentencing changes come at a time when D.C. is grappling with reducing violent crime, which remains higher than pre-pandemic levels and which led Bowser to argue that reducing certain maximum penalties could send the “wrong message.”

While congressional Democrats have demonstrated broad support for D.C. statehood in recent years, many appeared to find Bowser’s argument persuasive, even though the criminal code is more complex than much of the political debate has allowed for.

Still, some Senate Democrats felt that there was room to both support D.C. statehood and examine the merits of the crime legislation.

“These issues of sentencing and criminal justice, when they’re brought to us, raise issues on the substance of the measure itself,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said he strongly supports D.C. statehood. “We can say the Senate and Congress should not be making this decision, but if we’re forced to make it, we have to view it on the merits.”

Biden disappointed some and delighted others in the caucus by announcing that he did not plan to veto the disapproval resolution during the closed-door meeting.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was taken aback by the move, which he sees as a violation of the city’s autonomy. “I think this is one in which you respect local government, and it’s just the wrong action by Congress,” he said. But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a moderate whom Democrats are trying to persuade to seek another term in his deep-red state, said he began clapping with joy at the news, seeing it as evidence that Biden sees the criminal code overhaul as a “bridge too far.”

Reacting moments after the news broke during a news conference, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in the House, expressed disbelief. She pointed out that the Biden administration previously said it opposed the efforts to block local D.C. legislation and said those efforts were a prime example of why D.C. deserves statehood. She questioned why, if Biden supports statehood and home rule, he would not veto the resolution.

“This is news to me, and I’m very disappointed in it, if he will not veto,” Norton said. “I hope that he continues to say that he will oppose it.”

D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb said in a statement to The Washington Post that D.C. statehood is the only way to ensure the federal government does not meddle in the city’s affairs.

“Any effort to overturn the District of Columbia’s democratically enacted laws degrades the right of its nearly 700,000 residents and elected officials to self-govern — a right that almost every other American has,” he said.

The major revisions to D.C.’s criminal code are the product of more than a decade of collaboration among prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice researchers to update the century-old code and restructure how crimes are sentenced. Republicans have also seized on the revised code’s elimination of most mandatory minimum sentences, as well as the reduction of maximum penalties for many crimes such as robbery and burglary. But the criminal code also includes additional tools for prosecutors or judges to enhance penalties or “stack” charges to increase penalties, context that is often missing from the political debate — frustrating local officials and architects of the revised code who studied D.C. criminal sentencing patterns for years.

Patrice Sulton, an attorney who advised on the Revised Criminal Code Act, called the effort to overturn it “the most dramatic illustration of D.C. voter disenfranchisement seen in a long time” and warned senators that overturning it that it would be a “disservice” to crime victims.

If “tough-on-crime lawmakers from other states” vote to block the revised code, they would be voting to “continue to have one of the worst criminal codes in the United States,” she wrote. “They should understand that the offense definitions and penalties in our current code — the code they are voting to keep — are absolutely absurd.”

More than two dozen House Democrats joined Republicans to block the legislation last month — including Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who had been assaulted in the elevator of her D.C. apartment building the morning of the vote.

The broad bipartisan support signaled Senate Democrats could be expected to join Republicans as well.

Bowser’s veto of the legislation also complicated the calculus for Democrats. In addition, she opposed provisions she argued would burden courts, such as expanding the right to a jury trial for misdemeanor defendants. Just last week, Bowser wrote to Senate leaders insisting Congress should stay out of the city’s affairs and allow the council to address her concerns through amendments to the legislation.

Bowser lobbies Senate amid worries about losing Democrats on D.C. home rule votes

But Republicans have continued to use her veto to drum up bipartisan support for the disapproval resolution, and Bowser’s veto has been a frequent point of discussion for members of both parties including Biden.

Leaving the meeting with Biden, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she is now undecided on how she’ll vote, saying that she believes in D.C. statehood but that the mayor’s veto has concerned her. “We do have concerns about when the mayor vetoed the bill because … was it safe enough for their people? It gives us pause,” she said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Biden’s decision not to veto politically “smart” for the president. “You don’t want to go to the left of the mayor,” he said, adding that it doesn’t make sense to go “light on gun crimes” in D.C.

Norton said during the news conference that she has found certain criticisms of the D.C. crime bill unfair, noting that the code also increases some penalties.

As far as gun crimes, the revised criminal code includes new gun offenses, such as shooting in public regardless of if anyone was hurt, and new charges targeting particularly dangerous weapons such as ghost guns. Those charges can be “stacked” on top of charges such as carjacking or robbery, which also include penalty enhancements for using a gun in the commission of the crime.

Biden called out carjacking in his tweet, a crime that has particularly vexed D.C. police and residents as of late.

While the new maximum for first-degree carjacking is 18 years — compared with 21 years now — a multiplication of sentencing enhancements for an armed carjacking can put the sentence over 30 years in more severe cases, compared with 40 years under existing code.

Later in the day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre attempted to explain to reporters that “two things can be true”: in that the president supports D.C.’s right to self-government yet still believes he needs to intervene to block the legislation to protect residents. She was asked to explain if that meant the president believed in the right to self-rule unless he disagreed with the legislation.

“To double down and triple down on what the president has said for decades … he believes every city should have the right to self-government. That hasn’t changed,” she said. “But this is different. The way we see this is very different. The D.C. Council put changes forward over the mayor’s objection, and the president doesn’t support changes like lowering penalties for carjacking.”

Local council members did not appear to find Biden’s explanations satisfying. Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said in a statement that “past pledges of support for D.C. Statehood couldn’t ring more hollow,” while Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) said that “national Democrats cannot only be supportive of DC Statehood and DC autonomy when it is politically convenient for them.”

Tyler Pager, Michael Brice-Saddler, Paul Kane and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.