President Joe Biden said Thursday he would not veto a Republican-led effort to roll back changes to the District of Columbia’s criminal code, changing the White House’s position on the issue as he aims to project a tough-on-crime image ahead of an expected 2024 reelection run.
“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 wrote on Twitter after first revealing his stance in a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
Thursday’s announcement seemingly places Biden’s desire to insulate himself from ongoing GOP attacks on crime above the Democratic Party’s stated support for D.C. statehood and home rule for the district’s more than 712,000 residents, who lack voting representation in Congress. It also reverses the administration’s previously stated opposition to the GOP-led resolution, which it announced less than a month ago.
Biden’s decision not to stand in the way of the GOP’s effort to oppose the council’s changes will likely encourage Senate Democrats ― especially those who are facing tough reelection fights ― to support the measure, and it could ultimately result in Congress directly overturning a D.C. law for the first time in three decades.
“He said that very clearly, and we heard that loud and clear,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the only Senate Democrat who had previously come out in support of the move to override the D.C. Council. “He said he will not veto. I guess he thinks it’s a bridge too far.”
The D.C. Council passed the changes, which mirror criminal code updates in states around the country, in a unanimous vote last year. While many of the changes are minor, updating and standardizing a code written by both local and federal lawmakers over the course of a century, a handful of provisions lowering the maximum sentences for crimes like carjacking and murder have generated outrage and opposition.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told reporters he thinks most Democrats would ultimately vote to throw out the revised criminal code.
“Most of that bill has some very good changes, and then there’s some really problematic stuff which is why the mayor vetoed it in the first place,” Heinrich said. “So I think calling it a home rule thing is not so accurate as this is about getting it right when we all realize that there are some very serious crime issues.”
Crime in Washington, like in many other cities, spiked earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, and how to respond has been a major issue in local politics. The number of murders in the city fell from 2021 to 2022 after rising for the four years prior. (The murder rate remains well below its peak in the 1990s, following the crack cocaine epidemic.)
In his statement, Biden aligned himself with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, who vetoed the changes in January, only for the council to override the veto in a 12-1 vote. Still, Bowser and other Democrats have said they do not want Congress to interfere with local laws.
“To me, the Congress should not substitute its judgment for the elected representatives of the people of the District of Columbia,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Thursday, adding that he was disappointed with Biden’s decision not to veto the resolution.
At a press briefing not long after Biden’s announcement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to reconcile Biden’s support for the district’s autonomy with his decision to block the law.
“Two things could exist at the same time: The president still thinks D.C. should become the 51st state,” Jean-Pierre said. “He feels as president, he has obligations as well to keep America’s cities safe. This is one step in a way to do that.”
The House has already voted to block the D.C. Council’s proposed changes, with 31 Democrats joining every House Republican in voting to override the council last week.
Before that vote, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget expressed their opposition to the override.
“This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded,” the office wrote in a Feb. 6 statement of administration policy.
Biden’s announcement that he intended to sign the resolution into law is also notable since he can simply allow it to become law without his signature. Under the Constitution, the president has 10 days after Congress passes a bill to sign it, veto it, or do nothing. In 2016, for example, President Barack Obama declined to sign a bill levying sanctions against Iran, but let it become law anyway.
The GOP resolution needs only a simple majority vote in the Senate in order to head to Biden’s desk. According to several senators, the president did not explain his thinking to Senate Democrats at a special caucus lunch on Thursday, only mentioning his plan in the middle of a speech on the Democratic agenda.
Local D.C. officials avoided directly criticizing the president but expressed clear disappointment in his decision.
“Local autonomy and self-determination are fundamental American values,” said D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, a supporter of the criminal code overhaul. “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.”
The overhaul, which was set to take effect in 2025, would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and institute jury trials for more misdemeanors. It would also institute new sentencing limits based on the actual punishments defendants received over the past decade.
Much of the debate has focused on reduced sentences for carjacking, a crime that has spiked in D.C. in recent years. The maximum sentence for the crime dropped from 40 years in prison to 24 years. But as Slate noted, judges never actually handed down 40-year sentences for carjacking, and even the 24-year maximum under the new code is longer than the standard actual sentence of 15 years.
And it fixed some laws that were simply nonsensical: Under the existing code, threatening to destroy someone’s property warranted a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Actually destroying someone’s property? Only 10 years.
It was unclear if the D.C. Council might attempt to pass the code overhaul a second time. “The Chairman is aware of the President’s position. We’re exploring our options at this time,” Lindsey Walton, a spokesperson for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, told HuffPost in a statement.
The federal government has the power to block D.C. laws under the Home Rule Act, which went into effect in 1973 and let the city govern its own affairs for the first time. While it has not used that power in recent years, it has passed provisions in the federal budget blocking the city from using public funds on abortion or to set up a legal marijuana marketplace.
Biden’s controversial decision comes ahead of his expected run for reelection in 2024. Republicans sought to make crime a major issue in the 2022 midterm elections, and they’re doing so again ahead of the 2024 presidential election, talking up crime in Democratic-run cities.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Biden’s move “smart” politics.
“You don’t want to get to the left of the [D.C.] mayor. It makes no sense to go light on gun crimes in D.C.,” Graham told HuffPost.
Arthur Delaney and Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.