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Biden told advisers he would let Congress block D.C. crime law

President’s opposition is part of a tough-on-crime sentiment that is increasingly shaping the political landscape

Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser listens as President Biden speaks on gun violence at the White House in July 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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President Biden, in conversations with senior White House advisers, has made it clear for days that he would not block Congress’s efforts to overturn D.C.’s new criminal justice law, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Biden’s decision, which will allow Congress to overrule the D.C. Council, frustrated liberals, civil rights leaders and supporters of D.C. statehood, who continued to voice their anger Friday. But it also came amid a political landscape that suggests a growing concern about violence and may be perilous for politicians perceived as weak on crime, as reflected this week in the defeat of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The president’s decision to sign the bill, as he singled out a provision that would have lowered the penalties for carjacking, was a surprise in part because the White House a month earlier had issued a statement opposing Congress’s efforts to block it. Such a move, the statement said, was an example “of how the District of Columbia continues to be denied true self-governance and why it deserves statehood.”

White House officials declined to say Friday whether Biden had known about that statement before it went out.

For activists who have been pushing changes to the nation’s criminal justice system, Biden’s action suggested a dynamic they view as all too familiar — his political party’s sensitivity to claims that Democrats are soft on crime.

“Fear gets in the way when it comes to racial justice,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice group Color of Change. “And this idea that if we just back off that these people whose sole purpose is to attack (Democrats) are not going to attack is preposterous.”

Robinson, saying his organization has expressed its disappointment to White House staffers, said while he never expected Biden’s views to align with activists’, he thought it was out of line for Biden to interfere with D.C.'s autonomy.

Biden told legislators Thursday that he would support the effort to block D.C.’s revision of sentencing laws, which has already passed the House, should it win approval in the Senate as well. His remarks could influence more Democratic senators to join Republicans in reversing the city’s elected leaders, the first time Congress will successfully block a D.C. bill in more than three decades.

“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 Thursday. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

On Friday, the D.C. Council fired back in a tweet of its own: “This ‘but’ is like saying ‘Save the whales!’ then eating one.”

The move is the latest example of Biden’s efforts to stress to would-be voters that Democrats can be tough on criminals.

Biden won election amid rising support for reforming a criminal justice system seen by a growing number of Americans as tilted against people of color. The family of George Floyd, who was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. His running mate, former senator Kamala D. Harris, once co-sponsored a police reform bill that would have enacted nationwide changes. And Biden himself once knelt with protesters.

But in the two years since he took office, activists say, progress has been blunted by Democratic fears that Republicans will paint them as incapable of keeping voters safe. Republicans sought to brand Democrats as the party of “defund the police,” a slogan shouted by activists that reached its zenith during nationwide protests in the summer after Floyd was killed.

Former president Donald Trump and other Republicans have said that cities led by Democrats are coddling criminals, making them hotbeds of lawlessness. In the State of the Union address last year, Biden tried to emphatically distance his party from “defund the police.”

“We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police; it’s to fund the police,” Biden said, before going off his prepared remarks to emphasize the point. “Fund them. Fund them.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced a second day of questioning Friday dominated by Biden’s announcement. Her responses focused on what the administration sees as troubling aspects of the D.C. Council’s move, including reducing the penalties for murder, armed home invasion and carjacking, as well as unlawful gun possession and some sexual assaults.

“The president has been very clear we need to do more to reduce crime, to make communities safer and to save lives,” Jean-Pierre said.

Across the country there are signs that crime concerns continue to influence the behavior of voters — and politicians.

Lightfoot, Chicago’s Democratic mayor, failed to advance Tuesday to a runoff in the city’s mayoral primary, becoming the city’s first incumbent to lose reelection in four decades. Crime was a major issue in the race, and opponents pilloried Lightfoot for its dramatic rise, including nearly 90 killings in the city with 2023 barely into its second month.

And Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely expected to seek the 2024 GOP nomination, has been traveling to Democratic-leaning states and speaking to law enforcement groups.

“You apprehend a criminal, bring them in and then they just release them,” DeSantis told a group of law enforcement officers in Staten Island on Presidents’ Day, part of a swing through New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois. “So you’ve got to risk your life again two weeks later to arrest the same guy all over again. How does that make any sense?”

DeSantis said the states he visited had sought to reduce police budgets and put “woke ideology ahead of your safety as New Yorkers or people from Illinois.”

Democrats faced a similar challenge in advance of last year’s midterms. Although many Republican attacks focused on the economy, GOP candidates also sought to use crime to soften Democratic support.

Robinson praised Biden’s efforts to enact police and criminal justice reform, despite mixed results. But when Democrats play defense on the issue, he said, it ultimately does more harm to communities already hammered by inequities.

“In the midst of all the political rhetoric of whether someone’s going to get attack ads, you have systems that are simply not designed to produce public safety,” Robinson said. “You have Black people and Black communities that are consistently put in harm’s way.”

Because Washington, D.C., is not a state, Congress reviews all legislation passed by its city council and has authority over its budget. That has long engulfed D.C. in national political debates, with Congress imposing restrictions on how it spends its local funds when it comes to matters such as abortion or recreational marijuana.

But despite recent progress toward D.C. statehood, Democrats have been historically hesitant to push for “home rule” when the political stakes are high.

Biden this week sought to separate his support for D.C. statehood from his thoughts on the criminal code revisions, but that came as little consolation to local statehood advocates and city officials. The president’s move also rankled members of Congress who said it was an about-face from the statement of administration policy the White House made a month ago.

Biden has sought to balance his support for overhauling policing with a strong backing for law enforcement, including advocating for giving police departments more funding and resources. That has resulted in clashes with other Democrats in recent years as many in the party have called for more aggressive efforts to reform policing. But Biden made clear to his top aides that the changes to the D.C. criminal code went too far, the people familiar with the matter said.

Jean-Pierre said the White House statement from a month ago and Biden’s position this week were not in conflict, since Biden had never explicitly issued a veto threat.

“There was never a change of heart,” Jean-Pierre said. “The (earlier statement), the way that it’s laid out, speaks to the president supporting D.C. statehood. That is where we were at the time, and where the president has been for the past couple of decades.” At the same time, she said, “the president has been very clear we need to do more to reduce crimes, to make communities safer.”

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, said she was shocked by Biden’s statement and would seek to change his opinion.

“I will continue to do everything within my power to persuade the president that signing or failing to veto the resolution would empower the paternalistic, anti-democratic Republican opposition to the principle of local control over local affairs,” Holmes Norton said in a statement.

But other Democratic legislators had varied responses, reflecting both support for Washington’s right to govern itself and worries that Republicans could gain the upper hand in the crime narrative.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was taken aback by Biden’s move, which he saw as a violation of the city’s autonomy. 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.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, stressed the danger “of taking away local decision-making” and echoed Norton in saying the CBC would lobby senators against overruling the District.

Many House Democrats were particularly annoyed that the White House had not told them that Biden would support the GOP bill, leaving them in the position of voting against a bill that their own president is expected to sign. More than 100 Democrats voted against the Republican resolution of disapproval after the House Democratic leadership urged them to do so.

Their rebukes of the White House on Friday focused on the principle of self-rule for the District rather than the merits of sentences for particular crimes.

“This is simple: The District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said in a statement that did not mention crime.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) expressed a similar sentiment. “Plenty of places pass laws the President may disagree with,” she tweeted. “He should respect the people’s gov of DC just as he does elsewhere.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.