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Biden’s about-face on the DC crime law angers Democrats

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America/Getty Images</i><br/>President Joe Biden's decision to allow Congress to potentially nix reforms to the criminal code of Washington
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Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
President Joe Biden's decision to allow Congress to potentially nix reforms to the criminal code of Washington

By Kyle Feldscher, Manu Raju and Kevin Liptak, CNN

President Joe Biden‘s decision to allow Congress to potentially nix reforms to the criminal code of Washington, DC, has left him facing sharp blowback from his own party as he prepares to launch his reelection campaign.

The move to promise to sign the GOP-led legislation reflects a rising desire among more moderate Democratic lawmakers to avoid being seen as soft on crime, especially in the wake of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s surprise primary loss earlier this week. The DC policy was criticized by Republicans and others as being too lenient toward violent criminals with the District of Columbia seeing an uptick in violent crime.

However, Biden’s revelation Thursday in a meeting with Senate Democrats that he would allow the bill to become law set off howls of objections from progressives and DC residents, who said the president is letting Congress step on the ability of Washington’s citizens to govern themselves.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, is “deeply disappointed” in Biden’s decision.

“This is simple: the District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself. Democrats’ commitment to home rule should apply regardless of the substance of the local legislation,” she said in a statement to CNN. “This is why the Congressional Progressive Caucus and its members have endorsed D.C. statehood, with every CPC member cosponsoring D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s bill in the 117th Congress. Statehood is the only way to protect the 700,000 residents of the District from this kind of interference, we will continue to champion this cause.”

The president’s decision also contradicts his own administration’s earlier stance, laid out in a statement of administration policy last month, that said, “Congress should respect the District of Columbia’s autonomy to govern its own local affairs.” Biden attempted to explain the reasoning behind his change of mind, saying in a tweet from his official account, “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. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

A vote on the measure is expected in the Senate next week. It has already passed the GOP-controlled House.

White House tries to defend Biden’s call

Amid outrage from House Democrats, the White House sought to reinforce its relationship with the caucus on Friday after many voiced frustration at how Biden handled the matter.

The House passed the resolution February 9, with 173 Democrats voting against it. At the time, the understanding among Democrats was that Biden opposed the bill — in no small part because of the White House statement saying it opposed it.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House did inform House Democrats of Biden’s intentions to sign it — but only this week, at their retreat in Baltimore, weeks after they voted.

“The president and the administration has a very close relationship with House Democrats and Senate Democrats as well,” she said. “We have worked together, the president has worked very well with the members when delivering bold, historic pieces of legislation in his first two years of an administration and is very proud of the relationship that he has with them, and our teams are constantly in communication with them.”

She told CNN’s MJ Lee that the statement of administration policy that stated the White House opposed the resolution was intentionally vague, without explicitly saying Biden would veto it.

“We never laid out where the president was going to go,” she said.

“We always let the process Congress will go through, whatever mechanism they take,” she added.

She said Biden remained committed to DC statehood, despite pledging to sign the first measure in three decades that would overturn one of its laws.

“If Congress sends him a bill making a DC state, he’ll always be sure to sign it,” she said. “He’s been talking about that for the last two decades.”

The White House hasn’t said whether the president had spoken to DC’s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, before he talked to Senate Democrats about his decision not to veto the Republican legislation.

Bowser said in an interview Friday with local radio station WAMU that what the district is “dealing with is the effects of limited home rule, and we know that our legislative process is one that doesn’t end with my signature or veto.”

She added that “until we are the 51st state, we live with that indignity” and that it is “infuriating” for the district to be in that position.

Bowser previously opposed the bill, but also opposes congressional intervention in the district’s affairs.

Progressives furious

The about-face and the decision to overrule the local DC Council has left progressives and advocates for DC statehood fuming. Many Democrats oppose overriding the law on principle, arguing that local officials should make their own laws free of congressional interference.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York responded directly to Biden’s comments, disputing the president’s claim that he supported DC’s ability to govern itself.

“This ain’t it. DC has a right to govern itself, like any other state or municipality. If the President supports DC statehood, he should govern like it,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday night. “Plenty of places pass laws the President may disagree with. He should respect the people’s gov of DC just as he does elsewhere.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, told CNN, “The people of the district should have the right to have their Council accountable to them and should not have to worry about what Congress is going to do in regards to local decisions.”

Senior House Democrats told CNN that the White House did not communicate any of its concerns to their caucus before the vote. Plus, they are angry because Democrats have long been supportive of DC’s autonomy and the push for statehood has become a key priority for their caucus — and Biden’s position now undermines their party’s viewpoint.

But the overarching concern: A lack of communication from the White House to House Democrats. Now, a number of Democrats — including several in swing districts — will be exposed to fresh GOP attacks painting them as soft on crime and to the left of Biden on the potent issue.

“Cannot trust the White House,” one House Democrat who voted for the measure fumed on Friday.

Still, Biden’s decision opened the floodgates for a series of Democratic senators to say they also wanted to overturn the DC crime law — a reflection that many lawmakers are concerned about crime as a rising political issue.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly told CNN he thinks a lot of his Democratic colleagues “will be voting for it,” including him. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey counted himself among that number, though he argued he’d already made his mind up before Biden’s announcement. New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said he too would vote in favor.

A number of others, including fierce defenders of DC statehood, also said they were still weighing the issue.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Ted Barrett, Lauren Fox, Andrew Millman and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.

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