(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden said he would sign Republican legislation barring the Washington, D.C., government from making changes to its own penal code, reversing his previous stance in a move sure to anger the public. statehood advocates and others in the heavily Democratic city.
Most read from Bloomberg
At least three Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — join all Senate Republicans in supporting the resolution, giving it enough support to pass in a Senate vote that can take place as early as possible. week.
“He said that very clearly and we heard it very loud and clear,” Manchin said of Biden’s announcement Thursday at a behind-closed-door meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill that he will not try to block the measure. “And I clapped really hard because I feel the same.”
Washington’s crime law is lowering sentences for a variety of crimes, including carjacking, at a time when crime is booming in the city. But the GOP effort is a test for Biden and Congressional Democrats, who are wary of interfering in the affairs of the Democrat-dominated city.
And moderate Democrats running for re-election face the difficult task of either scrapping a controversial law that reduces many sentences before their 2024 campaigns or championing the district’s ability to govern itself.
“If the Senate votes to reverse what the DC Council did, I will sign it,” Biden tweeted after the meeting.
The White House opposed the Republican bill last month, saying Congress should “respect the autonomy of the District of Columbia to manage its own local affairs.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to explain why the president had changed his mind and what criteria he would use to evaluate congressional efforts to overturn D.C. laws in the future. She declined to say what Biden considered a reasonable mandatory minimum for carjacking offenses, broadly arguing that the president was making a one-time decision based on what he saw as the best interests of Washingtonians.
“The decision he makes, he makes for the people of DC,” Jean-Pierre said.
The change of direction unfolds as the national discourse on crime intensifies. A potential harbinger for Biden and the Democrats occurred this week when Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot became the city’s first mayor to lose reelection since 1983. The city’s crime rate played a big part in the contest, which pointed out that the issue could continue to glaring into the 2024 races.
The GOP-led House has already approved the measure to repeal the amendments to the city’s penal code. In the Senate, where the Democrats have a one-vote majority, the resolution only needs 51 votes to pass, so Biden’s decision means that the changes to the penal code will not pass.
District of Columbia law eliminates most mandatory minimum penalties and lowers maximum penalties for robberies, carjackings, and burglaries, among other things.
Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the crime bill and the City Council overruled it by a vote of 12 to 1 in January. Nevertheless, the mayor has resisted Congress’ meddling in local affairs. Washington is a federal district and has no voting congressional representation.
“The insult to limited Home Rule is that the 700,000 residents of D.C. and taxpaying Americans, and their duly elected officers, must endure the review and scrutiny of our laws by officers not elected to represent our interests or values Bowser wrote in a Feb. 2018. 23 letter to Senate leaders.
D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters at a meeting of House Democrats in Baltimore that she is “very disappointed” that he will not veto the measure.
“Two things can exist at the same time,” Jean-Pierre said when asked how the president can reverse changes to DC’s penal code if he believes in statehood and self-government.
“The president still thinks DC should become the 51st state,” said Jean-Pierre, adding, “he feels like president, he also has a duty to keep America’s cities safe, to keep communities safe, and this is the way to do that.”
Asked if the president was establishing a new principle that would allow him to make exceptions to his self-government belief for policies he doesn’t like, Jean-Pierre said: “I don’t think it’s every piece of legislation. This is coming to his desk and he has to make a decision for the people of DC”
Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, said that while he disagrees with the city’s actions, Congress should not substitute its judgment for that of local officials.
“I respect the process and the right of the people of the District of Columbia to self-determination,” Van Hollen said.
But Heinrich said it is important to intervene in this time of such high crime rates.
“It’s about doing it right,” he said. “We all realize that there is a very serious crime problem.”
–With assistance from Erik Wasson, Tatyana Monnay, Steven T. Dennis, Zach C. Cohen, Jarrell Dillard, and Jordan Fabian.
(Updates with Jean-Pierre’s comments, beginning in the eighth paragraph.)
Most read from Bloomberg Businessweek
©2023 Bloomberg LP